Coronavirus: An explainer
Dr Barbara Brito Rodriguez is a Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow with The ithree Institute - Institute of Infection, Immunity and Innovation - and she takes us through what we need to know about the novel coronavirus.
What is a virus?
Most organisms, like humans, animals and even bacteria, are made of cells. They take nutrients from the environment to grow, replicate and function. Viruses, in contrast, are agents that only consist of their genetic material, protected by a protein, and some of them have more outer layers, so they are structurally much more uncomplicated than 'cellular' organisms. Viruses replicate inside a living cell that they specifically recognise. For example, respiratory viruses will most likely recognise cells in the respiratory tract to enter, but will not enter another type of cell (in most cases). Once they enter a cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to replicate and make new viruses. In this process, viruses can make a person ill and release more viruses to infect more cells and more people. However, they can also replicate or live latent inside us without causing much trouble. We live with many viruses that do not cause any illness.
What is a pandemic?
To understand the term pandemic, we need to talk about the term epidemic. An epidemic is when a disease/health issue occurs in a population in numbers higher than what is normally expected. In the case of infectious diseases (caused by bacteria or viruses) it can be that disease, like influenza, where cases are higher than expected for a typical season. In general, these types of events may be caused by new and unexpected 'strains' or 'types' of a pathogen, or from a pathogen that is completely new to humans. These are typically viruses that 'jump' from one species to another, like Ebola from bats, MERS from camels and SARS from bats/civet cat.
When this event is not only local or regional, and it spreads globally, it's called a pandemic.
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