Before the development of modern medicine, benign diseases that could have been easily prevented have inevitably inflicted severe suffering on people, or in most cases, lead to their death. However, throughout history, science has developed rapidly due to the fact that scientists have continued to build upon the work of their predecessors. One particular field of Biology has become increasingly important with the emergence of globalization and the increased interconnectedness of our world. Virology, a field of microbiology, studies the structure, evolution, and classification of viruses. Currently the world is experiencing a pandemic, and as a result, countries are shutting down their borders, economies are crashing, and thousands of people are losing their lives. At times such as these, we must look into the origins of virology, educate ourselves on the topic, and appreciate the extensive research that is being conducted to combat COVID-19.
In 1892, the botanist Dmitri Ivanowsky discovered that the sap from an infected tree was able to infect a healthy tree even though it was filtered. Three years later, Martinus Beijerinck, a microbiologist, had declared this infectious substance a virus, and thus, marked the beginning of virology. Over the course of many years, scientists have discovered that viruses were a bundle of genetic material surrounded by a protein coat. Moreover, they are parasites that cannot thrive on their own which means that they require a host – a living organism – to start replicating. Thousands of copies are made before the cells rupture, damage the host cell, and then go on to infect other cells. In addition, viruses can exchange genetic material when they infect the same cell at the same time in a process called recombination. An example of such an exchange was seen in the swine flu which caused a pandemic in 2009, it was a combination of pig and bird viruses. With that said, viruses exist in many different forms and are capable of infecting any living entity.
Accordingly, COVID-19 belongs to the family of coronaviruses which get their names form the Latin word “corona” meaning crown due the spikes on their surface. These viruses usually circulate among animals, but in a phenomenon called the spillover event, the virus is transmitted to humans. Commonly known examples are the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which have infected 8,096 and 2,949 people, respectively. However, these two diseases were better contained then the novel COVID-19 virus which has infected over one million people as of April 4th. Researchers from all around the world are collecting samples of the virus in order to track it and observe how it changes. As of the time of writing this essay, 8 different strains or genetic variants have been found which shows that COVID-19 is mutating slowly. Richard Kuhn, PhD, of Purdue University states that, “A coronavirus has different mechanisms for recombination, but it’s not going to be as significant or as severe as the flu,” thus, people should not be startled by the emergence of new strains. No one is certain if the different strains will affect the efficacy of vaccines, but further research will hopefully address this concern according to Maria Elena Bottazzi, PhD, of Baylor College of Medicine.
In order to protect us from diseases, our bodies launch an immune attack to rid us of any foreign bodies. As previously mentioned, viruses are not living, thus, antibiotics are not effective when it comes to viral infections. That is why we get vaccinations which prepare the immune system to fight the virus if it encounters it again. For that reason, Chinese scientists have rushed to find the full genetic sequence of SARS-Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Thanks to their efforts, around 35 companies and academic institutions are racing to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus by studying the given sequence, and 4 viable vaccinations have already been found and they are being tested on animals. Scientists worldwide have been approaching this issue in different ways, some choose to tackle the issue in a more traditional way by using a weakened form of the virus. Others are creating DNA or RNA based vaccines which do not contain elements of the virus and can be made in a lab. The latter method is much faster since it does not require weakened viruses to be grown in eggs or cell cultures. Unfortunately, creating vaccines is a lengthy process, it has to be made, tested, then approved which would take at least 18 months to be completed. Bruce Gellin, who runs the global immunisation programme for the Washington DC-based nonprofit, the Sabin Vaccine Institute said, “While there is a push to do things as fast as possible, it’s really important not to take shortcuts.” Usually, vaccines that have approved similar products before can be accelerated such as the annual flu vaccine; however, scientists are starting from scratch with the novel COVID-19 so no vaccines have been approved to date.
Although this pandemic has had negative effects on nations worldwide, it has also allowed us to appreciate the power and the importance of science. Without knowledge in fields such as virology and medicine, people would continue to be victims of a silent microscopic killer till the end of time. This pandemic has also allowed the global scientific community to combine their efforts and come up with innovative solutions to combat the virus, none of the scientists and researchers are looking for praise or awards, they are just hoping to save lives.