By Max Ruffer (Grade 6)
We hear a lot about the big picture epidemiological story of COVID-19: the way it spreads on an interpersonal or interregional basis. But what about on the cellular scale? As numerous institutions race to find a cure to COVID-19, they must consider how the virus behaves in our bodies––we should consider that too. So let’s take a step back and look at the virus that’s on a chaotic world tour: SARS-CoV-2.
SARS-CoV-2 first attacks the upper and lower respiratory tract. Early stages of the virus show reduced white blood cells and lymphatic cells, considering these cells play a crucial role in the immune system. The fact that we’re working with a virus makes it even harder to cure. Unlike bacteria, viruses generally take over human cells and force them to make copies of the virus. The virus does this by landing on a human cell and injecting its genetic material into the cell. Antibiotics are not an option because they function by stopping bacterial reproductive systems––viruses rely on the host to reproduce (which is why they are often not considered living creatures). According to microbiologist Diane Griffin, “Bacteria are very different from us, so there’s a lot of different targets for drugs. Viruses replicate in cells, so they use a lot of the same mechanisms that our cells do, so it’s been harder to find drugs that target the virus but don’t damage the cell as well.”
The rapid rate at which SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses mutate also adds to the complexity of finding a long-term solution. These mutations “trick” the lymph nodes’ memory cells, which can remember and immediately launch an attack on a recurring virus if it reenters the body. However, once the virus mutates, the cells can no longer recognize the strain and must relearn its signature.
Thus, while an antiviral treatment might be effective one year, it may fail the next. For example, the reason you need to get a different flu shot every year is because the flu mutates every year.
Even with these disadvantages, humans are fighting back. Currently, 306 studies are being conducted into how SARS-CoV-2 behaves, but only nine have been completed. As of now, we have discovered only two drugs that may impact the disease: hydroxychloroquine and danoprevir combined with ritonavir. To accelerate the progress of finding a vaccine, many researchers have used their understanding of SARS, a virus similar to COVID-19, as a starting point. However, studies on medicine take about 11 months to complete in the United States and even with these existing treatments, COVID-19 remains deadly, killing many patients within 15 days.
The high infectivity of COVID-19 presents one of the most difficult challenges. Hospitals are running out of safety equipment, beds, and respiratory equipment due to the overwhelming number of patients with COVID-19. The lack of safety equipment is an issue for people who are at the front lines of this pandemic. When healthcare workers are infected, the virus becomes much more dangerous. Simply being near someone infected can give you the virus. As a result, the CDC now recommends wearing cloth face masks when out in public to slow the disease’s spread and thereby relieve the stress on the healthcare system.
Despite these difficulties, COVID-19 can be eradicated. With the help of “social distancing,” as well as the selfless work of researchers and healthcare professionals, humanity will overcome this crisis. As a community, we can do our part by staying inside and helping those who need it. Although COVID-19 may seem an insurmountable obstacle, we are slowly clearing it.