As we all embark on the next few weeks filled with degrees of uncertainty, numerous news reports, and recommendations on best practices to minimize disease spread (don’t forget to maintain physical social distancing!), we think it’s critical to keep science at the forefront of all disease-based dialogues. While there is a lot that scientists do not know about COVID-19, there is a great deal that we can learn from scientists about coronaviruses (such as SARS-CoV-2, otherwise known as the virus that causes COVID-19) and viruses in general.
Recently, RockEDU—by way of scientist and RockEDU director at Rockefeller University, Jeanne Garbarino, and Rockefeller University Virology graduate student, Gaby Paniccia—has been hosting zoom conference calls for children (split into age groups 5-7 and 8-12), and general audiences. During these calls, Jeanne and Gaby have been answering questions posed by the attendants in an effort to both educate and bring a sense of calm.
We’ve compiled a list of questions, below, and will continue to add to them as they become relevant. For the full video version of this live Q&A, watch the clip below or follow this link!
- What is a virus?
A virus is a very small particle—smaller than a bacteria—that multiplies by attaching itself to the cells of plants, animals, and other types of life. Viruses need to infect cells because they do not themselves possess the ability to read their own genetic instructions, which is a requirement to make and assemble more copies of themselves. There is a huge number of viruses all over our planet. In fact, one droplet of seawater contains over 10 million virus particles. The majority of viruses will infect bacteria, but there are a few different kinds of viruses that infect animals like us (humans).
What are coronaviruses?
A coronavirus is a large family of viruses that are similar to each other. These types of viruses are named for the spiky-looking “crown” they have. We have all had a type of coronavirus before—it is what gives us the common cold. This year, humans have been exposed to a type of coronavirus that is new to our immune systems, and is getting some people sick. This virus has been named SARS-CoV-2. This name just means that it is the second coronavirus that we have discovered to cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in people.
What is different about the SARS-CoV-2 virus?
Normally, the few types of coronavirus that can make us sick only cause a cold. This virus is different because it’s new—it used to make bats sick, and just recently became able to infect people. This is not unheard of for viruses. In fact, the common cold originally came from camels. The name COVID-19 refers to the disease that the SARS-CoV-2 virus causes in people—with the “CO” being short for coronavirus, “VI” standing for virus, “D” standing for disease, and “19” referring to 2019, the year that SARS-CoV-2 began to impact people.
Why do we believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in bats?
Scientists can assemble an idea of what animal a virus came from due to something called “codon optimization.” In the genetic code, different animal species use different “letters” at different frequencies. From one animal to another, the instructions for the same molecule might be spelled a little differently. In order to blend in and infect a cell efficiently, viruses have to match the instructions of their host. So, when viruses end up spelling their instructions like their hosts this allows scientists to see where the virus was prior to humans, and in this case, it was bats!
Why are kids less susceptible?
Kids can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, just like adults can. However, they tend to have mild symptoms, assuming they have symptoms at all! Scientists aren’t sure yet as to why that is the case. While kids are not getting sick from this virus, they can still spread it to others who might have a harder time fighting the virus on their own. This is why we are asking everyone—including kids—to maintain physical social distancing. You can still hang out with your friends online!
Why did this virus spread so quickly?
A virus jumping species is an act of complete, random chance! If this had happened somewhere with fewer people, we probably wouldn’t be in this pandemic situation right now. However, having so many people so close together facilitated a quick spread from person to person. Two other factors played a role:long incubation time and asymptomatic people. The long incubation time means that it can take up to five days or longer for symptoms to begin, but a person can be infectious before then! This means that a person could go about their day and infect their friends, family, and coworkers without even knowing that they were infected! Having asymptomatic people contributes to this, too. In South Korea, where they have fantastically extensive testing, a lot of young people are getting tested, even if they don’t feel like they’re sick and are testing positive for the virus. This means that younger people in the population could have the virus and not know. This is part of why we’re urging everyone to practice physical social distancing, because even if you don’t feel sick, you may be giving the virus to people who can get very sick.
Why is everything shutting down?
Things are shutting down because there are people who live around us that could become very sick, so it is important that we stop interacting with each other for a few weeks so that we don’t spread the virus around even further. We also want to do our best to keep our hospitals, including our nation’s doctors and nurses, from being overwhelmed by patients. This is called “flattening the curve.”
Is there a cure?
There is a cure: your own immune system! Most people have only mild symptoms and recover completely from COVID-19. This is because your body is very good at recognizing and destroying viruses. Afterwards, your body will “remember” that it saw SARS-CoV-2 and be able to destroy it faster. There are scientists working on medicines to help your body fight the virus faster, too, and developing vaccines to prevent people from ever catching it in the first place.
What can we do?
The most important thing you can do is wash your hands ALL THE TIME! You can also try to stop touching your face, but we know this is super hard. You will also have to stop playing with your friends for a few weeks, but you can chat with them over the computer.
For more in-depth answers to these and other questions about COVID-19, watch/listen to our YouTube video above!