The Coronavirus: COVID-19
It may be tempting to escape or avoid what is going on in the world right now, and while you should be staying at home as much as possible, it is still possible to stay engaged with what’s going on in the world. For most of us, the emergence of COVID-19 has essentially changed life as we knew it, and we are left to wonder when will things start to return to some sense of normalcy. Many believe there will be no return to normal until there is an effective medical treatment for the virus. If you have been paying attention to the news at all, you may have heard that researchers are currently trying to create a vaccine and antiviral drugs to stop the spread of the current outbreak.
First, it is important to understand what a virus is and what it does in the human body. A virus is a microscopic parasite that is usually much smaller than a bacterium. A virus consists of a protein coat that surrounds either DNA or RNA. It seems to lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of dead to alive, because it is unable to thrive unless it finds a living host. Scientific American explains that, “…when a virus enters a cell (called a host after infection), it is far from inactive. It sheds its coat, bares its genes and induces the cell’s own replication machinery to reproduce the intruder’s DNA or RNA and manufacture more viral protein based on the instructions in the viral nucleic acid. The newly created viral bits assemble and, voilà, more virus arises, which also may infect other cells.”
Because viruses are pretty efficient and often cause contagion, they are sometimes difficult to deal with. That is where antiviral medications and vaccines come into play. While both methods target viruses, there are some significant differences between the two methods. Because there has been more publicity surrounding a vaccine, I will discuss it here first.
Vaccines are designed to be administered before a person has been infected, as they serve as prophylactic protection. A vaccine contains very small amounts of whatever virus, called antigens, that it serves to protect against. The idea is that the presence of a particular virus prompts the human body’s defense structure to respond. The immune system produces particular antibodies to fight the pathogen. The vaccine prompts a situation that serves as a sort of training session for the human body. The immune system learns to recognize and attack the particular virus so that it may quickly and effectively eliminate the viral threat in the future.
The current estimate for the development and approval of a COVID-19 vaccine is between 12 and 18 months. Many people are concerned about this length of time, given the devastation the virus is currently causing around the world. However, there is a reason that vaccines take so long to create.
There are different ways to produce a vaccine, and according to Amina Khan of The Los Angeles Times, “One classic technique involves injecting a person with a killed virus. Another uses live viruses that have been grown and deliberately weakened, typically by removing specific genes in their RNA or DNA. Both of these strategies take some time, and scientists worry that if they use them on novel viruses, they may not behave the way researchers predict, said Dr. Kathryn Stephenson, who runs the clinical trial unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research. Another option for scientists is to reconstruct that snapshot using information from a virus’ genetic code, which may be made of either RNA or DNA.”
As you can imagine, these processes are quite time consuming, and once a viable vaccine is developed it must then go through human trials to ensure efficacy and safety. Because of the timeline for such a vaccine, many in the scientific community have been looking to other avenues. The other main option is an antiviral drug.
The primary distinguishing factor of an antiviral drug is that it is typically administered after an infection. Its goal is to limit damage and hasten recovery. There are two different types of antiviral drugs, specific and broad-spectrum. As the names suggest, specific antivirals target a particular virus, while broad-spectrum go after a wide range. Antivirals do not destroy pathogens, but instead inhibit the virus’s replication or prevent the virus from infecting a host cell.
Developing safe and effective antiviral antivirals can be tricky because viruses exploit the host’s own cells to replicate. This can be a problem for scientists because it is tough to identify targets for the drug that may affect the virus without harming the person’s own cells. Friendly fire can be an unfortunate consequence when aiming for an invading pathogen. However, there is hope that there may be some antivirals currently on the market that may prove helpful in inhibiting COVID-19’s effects and mitigating the damage.
With all the noise surrounding the current pandemic, it can be difficult to discern fact from fiction. And with the human toll being taken by the virus, the accompanying emotions can be overwhelming. Monitoring the situation round-the-clock will almost certainly burn you out sooner rather than later, however, you may want to periodically check in for updates. Knowing some scientific basics can help you filter that information and make more informed decisions.