Coronavirus-19’s genetic subterfuge


Ian Hastings, Guest Columnist

The Wuhan coronavirus, recently dubbed COVID-19, is the latest pandemic to sweep the globe.

As the reports of this disease spread, it’s easy to feel a sense of panic at the thought of a pandemic sweeping country to country, indiscriminate of the borders it exists in. All the disease cares about is the host and spreading its malign influence.

It is important to remember, however, that this is not the first time this has happened.

Coronaviruses have popped up before in the form of diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and certain aspects of the Swine Flu. These past diseases have come and gone; no new cases of SARS have been recorded since 2014 and MERS has less than a thousand cases a year. Since these past coronavirus outbreaks have been contained, surely this next one can be stopped too, right? The short answer is, maybe.

Coronavirus has a nasty trick hidden up its sleeve.

The virus can exchange genetic information with other viruses as well as randomize what order its genes are in. This trick can happen in both human and animal hosts. Therefore, a disease that can infect animals but not humans can shuffle in with a coronavirus and then the parts disease that once afflicted only animals can now afflict humans. When the genetic code changes, the nature of the virus changes as well.

Will the new strain be worse? Not as bad? Just the same? There’s no way to tell until it happens. Coronavirus can reshuffle when it infects a host already exposed to coronavirus, making an entirely new strain ready to go and infect the next host. This constant reshuffling makes it difficult to treat the disease. It’s like an unending man-hunt against a perpetrator whose face can change at will.

Previous coronaviruses have been treated, how is this one similar or different?

This coronavirus is similar to its predecessors in that there has to be something that keeps it what it is. This might seem confusing but think about it, if COVID-19 keeps reshuffling and taking new aspects from different diseases then eventually it would become something other than COVID-19. There has to be an aspect of similarity between every strain in coronaviruses, this allowed scientists to start developing a vaccine for SARS and now begin developing a vaccine for COVID-19. This is one way to beat the disease: pinning down its similarity.

Transparency is necessary to develop effective countermeasures. If outbreaks are to be halted, countries need to put politics aside and be forthcoming with information and how they plan on minimizing the outbreak’s damage. China’s closed state politics has done nothing but hinder progress to halt the pandemic despite their other efforts in working with outside universities to develop countermeasures.  Transparency in the SARS pandemic allowed the World Health Organization to adapt and prepare, effectively cutting off the virus from reaching new countries and containing the virus in existing countries, an objective that the Chinese government’s secrecy has thus far muddled.

Only time will tell how and when COVID-19 will be dealt with. The only thing we can do is to keep up with events as they unfold and stay healthy. Pandemics come and go, but humanity persists.