July 2nd, 2020

Virology 101 and COVID-19


By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on March 25, 2020.

A primer about viruses, how they work and how

they’re spread

Austin Mardon, et al

While many of us are buying supplies and researching best practices for quarantining, COVID-19 is not the only thing that has been spreading. Misinformation about viruses has also been circulating, including the difference between viruses as compared to bacteria. The ominousness that the public may have been feeling recently can be attributed, at least in part, to obscurity over what the virus is, how it spreads, and what preventative measures are best to protect ourselves and loved ones. As such, this article will attempt to allay those cryptic feelings by offering some general and plainspoken information on viruses.

Five properties distinguish a virus from other microorganisms:

1. Think of a virus like a parasite. A virus itself cannot survive without a host.

2. A virus is mostly made of DNA or RNA, which means that it uses the host’s DNA to make more viruses. Importantly, the DNA and RNA contents of the virus are “packaged” in a protein/lipid envelope. Warm water with soap, and hand sanitizers with over 60 per cent alcohol content, can help destroy this envelope and destroy the virus on the surface of your hands; however, destroying the virus on the surface of your hands does not eliminate it from other parts of your body (like your lungs).

3. A virus creates “virons.” Virons can reside outside of the host cell. (Coronavirus virons are estimated to be able to survive outside a host for anywhere between 24 hours and nine days.)

4. The host cells (you) produce the new virons. Think of these “virons” as the things you spread when you come in close contact with somebody, or if you were to cough into your hands and touch a surface or another person in your home, community, or church.

5. These virons spread the DNA/RNA contents to new hosts.

This does not mean that surfaces in your home or community might not have a virus on them. It is important not to panic about viruses, but rather to be informed about them. Every time we eat and breathe, we expel billions of virus particles every day. In fact, we carry viral genomes as a part of our own genetic material. Viruses in the human body may infect both human cells and other microbes such as bacteria and fungal matter. That’s right: viruses can infect bacteria! These types of viruses are called bacteriophages.

If virons can survive on outside of the body, such as on surfaces, how should we protect ourselves? Vaccines play an integral role in curbing viruses from spreading. Vaccines work by introducing a weakened form of the disease into the body, which mobilizes the immune system to reduce the effects of a future infection. A vaccine acts like a “trial run” for your body to fight the disease, and prepare it for the stronger virus that will later attack the body when introduced in everyday contact with people. Importantly, some people cannot access vaccines. Whether it is because the person’s immune system is compromised due to age or another ongoing infection, some people should not risk even weakened contact with a virus.

For this reason, it is important for healthy people to have regular vaccinations. A person may appear healthy, but be a carrier of a virus and unknowingly spread the virus to someone else who has a compromised immune system. A healthy vaccinated person, however, will halt the chain of spreading. Viruses being attacked by the immune system are less likely to create virons. When an entire community is vaccinated, a threshold of immunity is reached and gradually the disease disappears from the population.

Austin Albert Mardon, CM, FRSC (University of Alberta) is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, an Order of Canada member, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

John C. Johnson, M.Sc. Biomedical Engineering Graduate Student (University of Alberta) is a scientist, author, entrepreneur, and disability advocate.

Peter A. Johnson, M.Sc. Pediatrics Graduate Student (University of Alberta), is a child health researcher in intensive care and surgery with a background in physiology.

Riley Witiw, M.BA. Student (University of Alberta) is a communications specialist with extensive experience as an article writer for the Antarctic Institute of Canada.

Elisia Snyder, MA Arts. English and Film Studies (University of Alberta) is a staff member with the University of Alberta Press. She has a background in technical writing and editing, as well as publishing.

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