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Coronavirus / COVID-19

Coronavirus / COVID-19

by William H. Benson

February 20, 2020

In October of last year, Eric Toner, a scientist at Johns Hopkins, ran a simulation of a pandemic of a coronavirus. After six months, his simulation indicated that all countries would report cases of the virus, and that the virus would end the lives of 65 million people, a chilling and alarming estimate.

Toner was not shocked when he heard in January that a coronavirus had appeared in Wuhan, in Hubei Province, in China. He said, “It’s part of the world we live in now. It’s the age of epidemics.”

On Feb. 11, 2020, the World Health Organization gave this novel coronavirus a name, COVID-19. The 19 refers to the year 2019, when it first appeared.

On Dec. 31, 2019, four Wuhan residents were admitted to the hospital with influenza-like symptoms, sore throats, headaches, and severe pneumonia. If untreated, septic shock and multi-organ failure would result. As of mid-February, the coronavirus has infected tens of thousands, with little signs of slowing down.

This new coronavirus resembles the 2003 outbreak of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, that infected 8,098 people in 37 countries, and ended the lives of 774 people before health officials contained it. SARS also began in China, but in Guangdong province.

Both SARS and now COVID-19 first infected people who visited China’s wet markets. These are open-air markets where sellers sell live and dead animals, both domesticated and wild.

Chickens, for example, arrive in cages, and the sellers butcher them in front of the buyers. Fish are sliced open and gutted on the market’s floor. Skinned hares hang from strings attached to metal frames. Exotic animals caught deep in China’s forests are brought to the wet market where they are butchered.

The wet markets bring animals and humans together in congested areas, creating ideal conditions for zoonosis, or “spillover,” a point when a microbe jumps from animal to human.

Health officials have determined that human beings first caught the SARS virus from a weasel-like mammal called a masked palm civet, and they are convinced now that men and women first caught COVID-19 from pangolins, an animal that looks like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo.

“A group of researchers from South China Agricultural University found that samples from infected coronavirus patients and pangolins were 99% identical.”

Both of those spillovers from those two animal reservoirs occurred at a Chinese wet market.

Officials are confident though that it was first bats that infected the masked palm civet and also the pangolin. The virus in both cases jumped from bats to wild animals to men and women, who then, in turn, infected others through a cough or a sneeze.

“It is no coincidence that some of the worst viral disease outbreaks in recent years—SARS, MERS, Ebola, Marburg, and the COVID-19—originated in bats.”

What is it about bats and viruses?

Scientists have discovered that bat cells are unique, in that they are on constant alert for a foreign intruder, like a virus. “Viral infection in these bats leads to a swift response that walls the virus out of cells.” The bat’s cells will erect cellular barricades that block the virus from penetrating into the cell.

Although not infected itself, the bat carries the virus. “It becomes a unique reservoir of rapidly reproducing and highly transmissible viruses.” It infects others through its saliva, urine, or feces.

Because human beings’ cells do not display that same skill at blocking out a virus, a man or woman’s cells will succumb to the coronavirus’s attack without offering sufficient resistance.

A coronavirus exists at a midpoint between alive and not alive. Inside, it carries certain genetic material, either DNA or RNA, and on its surface is a protective coating that features numerous spikes pointed outwards, giving it a crown-like appearance, hence its name, “corona,” Latin for crown.

This virus cannot move, thrive, or reproduce on its own. Instead, it strives to enter into a host animal’s cells and replicate itself there again and again, until it ends the host’s life.

The estimate of 65 million dead that Toner’s simulation arrived at is not far-fetched. The Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918, due to the H1N1influenza virus, killed at least 15 million and possibly as many as 100 million, mostly young men and women in the prime of their lives.

As of mid-February, the coronavirus COVID-19 has ended the lives of a little more than 1,000 people, a figure greater than SARS’s total death count.

Health officials will continue to contain its spread “through quarantines, disease surveillance, and emphasizing rigorous hygiene practices,” but at this time, no one knows how many will succumb? A vaccine may require months or years of development. We now live in “the age of epidemics.”