Decoding the coronavirus

COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus named for its discovery in December 2019, has officially been labeled as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), as released in a press conference on March 11. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronaviruses are a large “family” of viruses, meaning there can be more than one strain of COVID-19. The virus underwent a mutation of its RNA, or a change in the sequence of its nucleotides. This strain originated in bats, where an infected animal then infected an individual – patient zero – in Wuhan, China. 

The CDC has made it a point to note the rarity of animal coronaviruses infecting people. Yet, this rarity has spread fear across the world with the death rate anywhere from 1 to 2.5 percent. In the three-month time frame the virus, over 100,000 people have been infected. 

So how has a tiny piece of RNA infected these many humans? 

Simple – water droplets in the air.

The dangerousness of the infected water droplets is two-fold: 1) the droplets can enter the nose, mouth and lungs and 2) the virus can be picked up from droplets on surfaces. Here, the virus can live for anywhere from two hours to two weeks, depending on the type of surface – wet, sticky, moist, etc. 

With the virus traveling on water droplets in the air, community infection is the result. The CDC advises that individuals should stand 6 ft. apart from individuals, especially those who are coughing or sneezing. 

Once the water droplets are inhaled, the virus enters the cells of the host individual. COVID-19 is made up of a strand of RNA surrounded by a protein coat, where the proteins are the key to latching onto the human cell. These proteins stick out from the virus and fit like a puzzle piece with those of the respiratory system. 

The viral RNA then enters the human cell, where it relocates near a ribosome. The contact results in the ribosomes being taken over and not performing their duty to make proteins. Instead, the ribosomes make the virus – and become a virus-making machine, at that. 

Presently, there is no vaccine for the virus. Research is time consuming, as the virus needs to be grown in cell cultures by the CDC and then be sent out to labs for testing. An exploratory stage, pre-clinical stage, clinical development, regulatory review and approval, manufacturing and quality control all needed to be accounted for on the checklist before a vaccine enters the market. 

This process is estimated to take 12 to 18 months, much longer than the three months since patient zero was infected in December. 

With the limitations for a vaccine, there are also limitations with testing. Not everyone can get a test, although there are 21 different test kits available. 

False positives and false negatives have become a reality. The latter has contributed to the problem at hand, as many patients have been released after testing negative multiple times but experienced symptoms down the line. 

What are the symptoms?

Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. 

Fever, cough, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face are all key warning signs that warrant attention. 

Symptoms may not be present for two to 14 days. 

If concerned about any of these symptoms, individuals should call their healthcare provider (rather than walking into the doctor’s office without an appointment or into the emergency room). These locations are hubs for infecting others. 

Calling ahead and scheduling an appointment allows the healthcare provider to take the necessary precautions to keep others from being infected or exposed to the virus. 

Where to go for information?

For more information about Wilkes University’s response and continual updates, individuals should visit 

To further look into the disease and warnings, individuals should visit the CDC website, specifically