Another one on coronavirus. Could get a bit technical but I’ll try not to.
The WHO, which has expended most of its energies lately in its War on Steam and Flavours, has decided the latest coronavirus outbreak is stabilising. It’s at the end of the article.
It is nowhere near stabilising. Someone who came from Singapore (it is not clear whether they visited Singapore or originated there and it really doesn’t matter any more) has infected twelve British people and more from other nationalities. It happened in a ski resort in Austria. The original infected person did not get sick until they returned to the UK.
This disease was classed with an R0 of 4. This means that an infected person will infect four others and it also indicates a disease that’s nearly impossible to control. This one patient infected twelve. Before showing any symptoms themselves. Taking it seriously yet? I am.
There are people out there blaming it all on any Chinese person they see. It’s far too late for that. Besides, I’m betting a very large proportion of ethnic Chinese in the west have never been to China. The Westerners who have been there on holiday or for business since last November are far more of a risk, especially since you’re all avoiding the wrong people. Well, those who came back within the last 14 days. Yes, Prince Andrew, that’s you too. Viruses care nothing for social standing, you know.
This little freak can survive up to five days on a damp smooth surface. Longer than cold or flu viruses. It can incubate for 14 days in a host, while shedding virus particles, before that host shows symptoms. It had been considered to be spread by contact but as the article linked above says, it can also spread by aerosol. Tiny floating bits of sneeze-water can carry it quite some distance and keep it viable.
My first thought on reading that was ‘Huh?’ Every other respiratory virus and bacterium does this. Why would they ever think this one wouldn’t? Of course it bloody does.
It’s why I thought the drivers on those buses were taking a great risk and why I was astounded that the case-on-a-plane prompted them to only look for the nearby-seated passengers. Of course it spreads in aerosols. Why wouldn’t it? And even if it was later found not to, why would you not assume that it could (since pretty much everything else does) and take appropriate precautions?
It’s not so much the virus that’s dangerous here, it’s the slapdash approach to it and the ridiculous coverups to quell public fears. Look, you need to be afraid of it, you need to avoid it or it becomes endemic.
However, this isn’t meant to be a scare story even though that’s pretty much what I do.
It will spread through aerosols, yes. Someone who shows no symptoms and who has no idea they are infected could spread it all over an auditorium. However…
It’s an RNA virus. Not a retrovirus like HIV. It doesn’t convert its RNA into DNA and hide in your cells for decades before emerging with an ‘Ah-ha! Gotcha!’. Its genetic code is RNA which is not as stable as DNA. It’s very susceptible to drying out and to UV light in particular. It’s also killed by bleach but then so is everything else, including you. So don’t try bleaching yourself.
I have seen panicked people on Twitter showing disinfectant bottles that list coronavirus as one of the things it kills. ‘How did they know about it before it appeared?’ Coronavirus is not new. This variant is new. And those disinfectants will kill this one too.
Okay, so, trying not to get into full technical lecturer mode… RNA is what DNA is transcribed into so the information in the DNA can be passed on to the ribosomes to make proteins. The DNA stays where it is. The RNA is a sort of temporary photocopy of the main blueprints and it’s not supposed to last long. It’s just sent to the ribosomes (the bits in the cell that make proteins) to tell them what to make. I’ll avoid all the mRNA and tRNA stuff out of uncharacteristic mercy.
DNA viruses use the cell’s own photocopier to send their information to the ribosomes. Retroviruses use an enzyme called ‘reverse transcriptase’ to turn their RNA into DNA then either hide in the host DNA or use the cell’s own photocopier like the DNA viruses.
Coronavirus is an RNA virus. It goes directly to the ribosomes and ignores the host DNA. The first thing it makes is an enzyme that buggers up the cell’s own photocopier so the virus gets full access to the ribosomes. Then it makes more copies of itself and a protein portal that sits in the host cell membrane to send those copies out into the world.
I hope you’ve followed this so far. Because of the way it works, it’s shedding new viruses before it infects enough of your own cells to make you sick. It’s not the only one doing this, it’s just unusual in that it can do this for 14 days before you fall over. None of the other coronaviruses have that much patience.
For those with a background in cell biology, microbiology or virology, here’s the technical stuff.
It is not invincible. If you can avoid catching a cold, you can avoid this too. It’s a little more difficult since you don’t know who will be the 14-day incubator and who will show symptoms faster. It is however, possible.
Okay. The aerosol is more of a risk indoors. Someone sneezes outdoors and even in still air (which we don’t have much of in the UK at the moment) it’s going to be seriously diluted in the atmosphere. It will be affected by air currents so small we can’t even feel them. It might go down to die in the dirt, it might be wafted high in the air to die in the stratosphere. There is still a risk of infection but that risk is far lower than it would be indoors.
At the moment, of course, if someone sneezed outside in the UK the virus would probably die in the air on the way to Denmark.
Indoors, well we brought this on ourselves. We have draughtproofed and hermetically sealed all our buildings now so we breathe in everything that is floating around, over and over. Those of us with fireplaces still will have the sneezed-out virus wafted up the chimney but fireplaces are becoming increasingly rare. Even frowned upon by those terrified of infection. Fire has kept humanity alive this far, we have abandoned it in recent years and it’s coming back to bite us. But that’s a different post.
Ultraviolet light will kill pretty much anything if the dose is high enough. RNA is far more susceptible to this than DNA so a coronavirus in sunlight will degrade pretty quickly. It’s an exponential decline and you only need one virus to infect but it does cut down the likely infection rate. You cannot use enough UV indoors to kill it or you’ll kill people too. You can include UV in your air filtration just as we use it in water supplies – well, mine at least. It works in small water supplies, it can’t deal with a whole town’s water supply because the water passes the UV too quickly.
Don’t go to large gatherings, ventilate your home, stay away from concentrations of people and you can avoid catching this thing. Whether someone is Chinese or has been to China in the last two weeks is no longer relevant. Pandora’s box is open, it’s all over the place now.
Those of us who have lived this way all along are feeling a bit smug right now. Especially smokers.
We’re happy to be excluded from society. We might end up as the only ones left.