By Abinaya Senthil
The Origins: What is the coronavirus?
To sum it up in a few sentences, a coronavirus is a family of RNA viruses that is responsible for the common cold and other infections such as SARS. The virus can cause many respiratory, neurological, and gastrointestinal diseases. While many are aware of the coronavirus today as a result of COVID-19, some are unaware that the coronavirus is nothing novel to the human race. In fact, the first origins of a human coronavirus are dated back to 1965. Scientists named Tyrrell and Bynoe discovered a human coronavirus found in the human embryonic tracheal organ cultures in the respiratory tract of an adult, thereby causing the common cold. At the time, the virus was named B814. Following the discovery, various institutions of health reported multiple trains of the agents affecting the human respiratory tract. Since the viruses were grown in organ cultures, they were coined as “OC.”
Later in the 1960s, a group of virologists, scientists who study viruses, began to work with human strains and animal viruses including the hepatitis virus in mice and bronchitis virus. Thus, these similar human and animal viruses were named coronavirus, the name "coronavirus" taken from the Latin term “corona,” meaning crown.
Other coronaviruses: SARS and MERS
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS, was a coronavirus from southern China, spreading throughout the world rapidly. It is a viral respiratory illness caused by SARS-CoV and was discovered in Asia in February 2003. SARS spread to many countries in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. While it was rumored that the virus presumably emerged from Himalayan palm civets, it remains unclear how the virus began to affect humans. Additionally, SARS was the first severe and transmissible disease in the 21st century, demonstrating its ability to easily spread internationally through air travel as well as contact between people and respiratory droplets.
The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, called MERS. is an illness caused by a coronavirus (MERS-CoV). The cases regarding the virus were connected to the Arabian Peninsula. Officials reported the disease in Saudi Arabia in September 2012. Following the regular format of coronavirus spread, MERS similarly spread through travel, respiratory secretions including coughing, and close contact with infected ones.
What took so long?
Before we start complaining about why vaccines weren’t made earlier in 2020, it’s important to understand the basics of a vaccine. First, scientists must find the genetic sequence of the virus which is a difficult part. After the virus is thoroughly investigated, vaccines can be developed using various strategies including inactivating the virus, creating an attenuated vaccine, and using specific parts of the virus in the vaccine itself. Vaccines are then tested through clinical trials with healthy patients, infected patients, and are finally given to the FDA for approval. While the steps might seem as easy as putting together parts of a sandwich, it’s important to consider that the COVID-19 is completely new and unknown. Imagine being forced to make a sandwich you’ve never tasted or seen before in your entire life.
How do COVID-19 vaccines work?
Both FDA-approved vaccines of Pfizer and Moderna utilize mRNA, triggering the immune system to make antibodies. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines give the cells instructions to make a part of the spike protein, a protein that allows the genetic code of the virus to enter the host cell and take over. The spike protein is located on the surface of the virus causing COVID-19. Once the mRNA is inside the immune cells, the cells make a protein piece, destroying the instructions. Our immune systems recognize that the displayed protein piece doesn’t belong in the body, therefore making antibodies to fight the intruder. As a result of the vaccine, our bodies learn to protect against future infections. While those who have COVID might believe that they don’t need the vaccine, the contrary is true. People who already have COVID-19 need to be vaccinated because evidence suggests that having the disease doesn’t protect people from being infected again.
New Strains? Will the vaccine work?
When there is a change or mutation to the virus’ genes, new strains of viruses occur. Mutations in viruses are very common as viruses are prone to evolve and change with time. In fact, flu viruses change and mutate over time and this is why you are required to get a flu shot every year. Currently, there are three new variants of COVID-19. A variant in the U.K. that has 23 mutations, a variant in South Africa with various mutations in the S protein, and a variant identified in Brazil. The mutations in the strain affect the coronavirus’s spike proteins, which are located on the outer surface and are the crucial part that allows viruses to enter our body’s cells. While nothing seems to be certain with COVID-19, new strains are quickly replacing other versions of the virus and are further allowing the virus to infect cells. The question remains whether the vaccine will work against the new strain. According to Stuart Ray, M.D, there is no evidence indicating that the current vaccines wouldn't work against the strain. Even though a part of the spike is mutated, the vaccines should work. However, scientists will continue to research new versions of the coronavirus as it evolves.
Conclusion: What are the next steps?
Currently, the authorized and recommended vaccines for COVID-19 in the United States include Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. Other vaccines are under development and must be approved by the FDA. All vaccines have been proven to be safe, effective, and have reduced the risk of the illness. Hence, check your eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine and schedule your appointment soon.
While COVID-19 is taking a toll on the physical as well as mental well-being of many, it’s important to take time for yourself and enjoy the positives of life. Take precautions, wear masks everywhere you go, wash your hands thoroughly, and most importantly, stay safe. As much as it’s tempting to take a break and go elsewhere with friends, even a single gathering could be the difference between life and death. Furthermore, cherish these times as much as you can, enjoy working from home, taste the yummy home-made food, and relish the time with your family. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it has taught us to be grateful for our homes, our lives, food, family, and of course, Wifi! It has taught us to not take life for granted and appreciate the positives of life.