The novel coronavirus has been the main topic of conversation for a month now in the U.S., but despite all the abrupt changes to daily life, there's still a lot people (even scientists) are learning about the novel strain of the virus. You wouldn't be faulted for not yet having an epidemiologist level expertise in COVID-19 yet, though I'm sure by the end of this pandemic we will all know at least more about it than we do about how the three branches of the government work.
While we can't answer the big questions we all have, like how long we will have to endure self-isolation, when there will be a vaccine, or what life will be like after the disease is under control, we can offer some answers to questions like "what does COVID even mean anyways," as well as what a coronavirus is (and isn't), and a few ways to keep your home as sterile as possible.
First, what does COVID stand for?
For people who don't have a background in microbiology, the word coronavirus might be novel, so they may think this new strain is the first of its kind. Actually, coronavirus refers to a group of viruses that are so lumped together because they look similar. They get their name from the spikes of glycoprotein around their circumference, because they sort of look like a crown or wreath when viewed under an electron microscope.
Coronaviruses are actually fairly common and can cause benign infections in other species. Many strains have fairly mild onset like the common cold, but there have been several strains to make the news before COVID-19, which is why it needs its own designator. COVID simply stands for COronaVIrus Disease of 2019, since the earliest cases were discovered late last year.
Now here's where things get confusing. The virus itself isn't called COVID-19 — that's the disease it causes. The official name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2, which probably rings some bells for you.
There have been other remarkable strains of coronavirus before this one, namely SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, which stand for severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, respectively. Obviously just sticking a 2 at the end of SARS-CoV is confusing to laypeople, and while scientists who study viruses may be very smart and good at a lot of stuff, branding is maybe not their strongest suit. Unofficially, the virus that causes COVID-19 is therefore called "the COVID-19 virus" to keep things simple.
A virus is not the same as bacteria, by the way.
The thing that makes COVID-19 so hard to fight and treat is what makes a lot of viruses challenging to combat, which is that they cant be fought by antibiotics. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, and viruses are a whole other class of organism. In fact, it's not really even an organism. It's made of nucleic acid — either RNA or DNA — but it isn't really living, and it can't even thrive or replicate without invading the cell or cells of an actual living organism. Even a single-celled organism is capable of replicating on its own without invading another species.
So, while viruses are made of the same protein that makes up an organism's genome, they lack all the other parts of a cell that make it function. And because they have to hitchhike their way into another organism's cells, they tend to mutate very rapidly depending on where they set up shop. This can make is difficult to nail down the pathology.
It can be frustrating when doctors are unable to tell you precisely how long it takes to clear a COVID-19 infection or to offer a vaccine for it, but keep in mind, before November 2019, no one had heard of this thing. We now know some properties of the virus that have allowed it to spread so far and wide. While it is fortunate that the majority of people who contract the COVID-19 virus do not have severe outcomes, and many even remain symptom-free, it is a particularly hearty virus that can survive on surfaces for long periods — up to three days on plastic or stainless steel.
And people who have the virus may be contagious for 14 days or longer, which gives it ample time to spread to many hosts, many of whom have compromised immune systems or other underlying health problems that make it difficult for their body to fight off an unwelcome invader.
Thankfully, it's not invincible — here's what kills the COVID-19 virus.
While it can't be treated with antibiotics, there are ways to kill the virus on surfaces. They're the same products we've always used to disinfect surfaces: bleach, isopropyl alcohol (70 percent alcohol or higher), and hydrogen peroxide (3 percent solution). Soap and hot water also get the job done. The friction and lipid-dissolving quality of soap help break the virus's envelope, effectively killing it, but it takes some time, which is why we're all singing 20-second coronavirus songs as we wash to make sure we give the soap enough time to do its job.
You can truly only control yourself and your home environment, which is why self-isolation is so key. Even taking every precaution like wearing masks and gloves, and washing our hands religiously can't stop us from coming in contact with the virus or unknowingly spreading it to others. So yes, do wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face, and do spend some time each day disinfecting commonly touched surfaces. But above all else, stay home and away from others as much as you can until it's under control.
The best way to prevent contracting or spreading coronavirus is with thorough hand washing and social distancing. If you feel you may be experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, which include persistent cough (usually dry), fever, shortness of breath, and fatigue, please call your doctor before going to get tested. For comprehensive resources and updates, visit the CDC website. If you are experiencing anxiety about the virus, seek out mental health support from your provider or visit NAMI.org.