Since the pandemic first got going in early January, scientists around the world have been working flat-out to study the virus. And while progress is being made, COVID-19 is proving to be a tough (viral) nut to crack, so plenty of questions remain.
What is known so far is that while many people who become infected seem to sail through with little or no symptoms, many others become seriously ill. It’s also known that infected people who are asymptomatic can still transmit the virus, and the incubation period for those who do get sick is 14 days, so there’s plenty of time for them to contribute to community spread too.
Certain demographics such as the elderly and those with a compromised immune system or underlying medical condition such as chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity are at special risk. But the virus can hammer healthy people in the prime of their life too.
As the pandemic has unfolded, attempts have been made to downplay the virus by comparing it to the common cold or seasonal flu. But research is showing that when it does strike, it can wreak much greater havoc on the body than a typical cold/flu virus.
You can read more in this Science article, but here’s a brief summary.
When the virus enters the body, it establishes itself in the lining of the nose and throat through the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptor (ACE2). As viruses do, it then hijacks cells to make copies of itself. Through coughing and sneezing, the infected person then sheds the virus, which potentially infects other people.
If the body’s immune system can’t overcome the virus at this point, it will migrate to the lungs. As the article recounts, as the immune system continues to battle the virus, fluid and dead cells (pus) can accumulate in the lungs, hindering their ability to process oxygen. In some instances, the immune response can be so extreme that it triggers a “cytokine storm” where healthy cells are attacked by immune cells.
The impact, at this point, is akin to pneumonia. But what the latest research is showing is that the virus doesn’t just stop at the lungs. Instead, it can target other areas of the body that also have ACE2 receptors.
That includes blood vessels, which can compromise the cardiovascular system — including the heart. The virus can also attack the kidneys and cause renal failure, so that instead of a ventilator, the patient requires dialysis to survive. ACE2 receptors also exist in the neural cortex and brain stem, so the brain and central nervous system can be infected too.
The liver, lower intestine and eyes are also vulnerable to infection. So no, COVID-19 is not your typical cold/flu. And rather than listen to populist leaders anxious to dismiss the virus to further their political/economic interests, we need to be patient and let the scientists do their work so we can find out more about the virus and develop a strategy to best deal with it.