The Coronavirus is a family of viruses with spikes that look like a crown (thus “corona”) which the viruses use to attach to cells. Once attached, the virus injects its own genetic material into your cell to coopt it into replicating more viruses. Once it has done so, your cell literally explodes spewing millions of new viruses into your body which infect more cells.
While that sounds horribly visceral, that’s how every virus works. Your body’s immune system soon identifies and attacks the virus with a special weapon called T-cells which can cut the spikes and render the virus harmless. There a many other biological processes in play for this over-simplified explanation, but suffice to say, that’s how you recover from every viral infection.
This particular group - the coronavirus - cause diseases in mammals, including humans, and birds. In humans, the virus results in respiratory infections which are usually mild but, in rare cases, can be lethal. The latest coronavirus outbreak has been more lethal than previous ones because the human body’s immune system hasn’t seen this mutation before and in some instances cannot react in time to stop the onslaught.
The outbreak of the coronavirus in China likely originated in illegal, but still very popular live animal markets. This allowed an interface when an infected animal breathed or sneezed a mutated version of the virus which eventually found its way into human lungs where it could exploit its ability to attach itself to a human lung cell. Most of the time, an animal virus cannot attack human lung cells unless there has been a mutation allowing it to cross the biological barrier from animals to people.
Hopefully, as is often the case, the virus will stop there because it doesn't have a mechanism to become communicable. Sometimes the virus can become airborne where, if it survives long enough, it will be picked up by another person from close proximity, or from surfaces such as door handles, tabletops, railings of other commonly handled items.
When this happens, the virus starts to travel from one host to another, and the viral infection becomes an epidemic. In the coronavirus outbreak, we started to see health care worker and family members getting sick.
How do I catch it and how do I remain healthy?
This virus has a “key” which allows it to attach to only specific cells in your body. In the case of the coronavirus, the key fits your lung cells. It absolutely cannot enter your body except by way of your lungs.
Avoid groups of sneezing and coughing people.
If a contagious person sneezes, the droplets can enter your lungs if you breath it in. Most of us have the good sense to stay away from sick people, but what we don’t realize is, the sick person sneezes and those particles with the virus can land on a tabletop. If you touch it, then touch your face, you provide instant access. Or, the particles land on the floor and you put down your purse, your backpack or your grocery bag, pick it up again, touch the bottom, then touch your face.
Wash your hands often and stop touching your face.
The average North American touches their face an average of 3.6 times per hour and common objects like counter tops and table surfaces 3.6 times per hour. With our hands touching common surfaces that often re-contamination can occur very quickly after we wash our hands.
Wear a mask.
You might think a mask works because it prevents contaminated particles in the air from reaching your lungs, but it doesn’t. The paper masks are leaky, and if someone sneezed right at you, while it would be better to have the mask as a barrier than not, the real reason these masks work is because they prevent you from constantly touching your face; especially your nose and mouth.
No, you don’t have to avoid imported meat.
Meat coming from Asia will not contaminate you because it must be breathed in for the virus to get into your lungs. Your stomach acid is a potent defence mechanism to prevent infections from entering your body by destroying most viruses and bacteria. Regardless, the only way you catch coronavirus is if it gets into your lungs. Packaged meat can’t do that.
Most important advice? Don’t needlessly panic.
While there are likely many more sick people in China than previously reported. There are currently only two reported cases of coronavirus in Toronto which Canadian medical officials are closely watching, along with an additional 19 people who travelled to the Hubei region of China and who now have respiratory symptoms. Health Canada very quickly and effectively isolated the potential risks by locating and quarantining those affected. Health officials are also taking samples of the virus to track how it is mutating (evolving) to see if it is becoming more virulent or more effective in transmission.
If you’re feeling sick, the odds that you have a case of coronavirus is extremely small, so rest well and get better. If you start to feel extremely sick, call your health professionals or 911 in an emergency.
To your health!