Profile of a killer: Unraveling the deadly new coronavirus

What is this enemy?

Seven months after the principal patients were hospitalized in China battling an an infection clinical doctors had never seen earlier than, the arena’s scientists and electorate private reached an unsettling crossroads.

Limitless hours of therapy and compare, trial and blunder now develop it you can also bear to use worthy nearer measure of the unusual coronavirus and the lethal disease it has unleashed. Nevertheless to use good thing about that intelligence, we must confront our continual vulnerability: The virus leaves no different.

“It’s like we’re in a battle with something that we will’t spy, that we don’t know, and we don’t know where it’s coming from,” stated Vivian Castro, a nurse supervisor at St. Joseph’s Scientific Heart in Yonkers, steady north of New York Metropolis, which struggled with its caseload this spring.

Castro had handled scores of contaminated patients earlier than she, too, used to be hospitalized for the virus in April, then spent two weeks in house quarantine. As quickly as she returned to the emergency room for her first shift, she rushed to consolation yet yet every other casualty — a man swallowing the few words he might maybe maybe maybe muster between gasps for air.

“It steady came relief, that scare,” she stated. “I steady wished to repeat him no longer to quit.”

The coronavirus is invisible, but apparently in each set. It requires shut contact to unfold, nonetheless it has reached around the globe sooner than any pandemic in history.

COVID-19 used to be no longer even on the arena’s radar in November. Nevertheless it has triggered economic upheaval echoing the Huge Despair, while claiming more than 580,000 lives. Within the U.S. on my own, the virus has already killed more American citizens than died combating in World Battle I.

Even these figures don’t use the pandemic’s corpulent sweep. Nine of every 10 college students worldwide shut out of their colleges at one level. More than 7 million flights grounded. Limitless moments of birthday party and sorrow — weddings and graduations, itsy-bitsy one showers and funerals — attach off, reconfigured or abandoned thanks to worries about safety.

Briefly, the coronavirus has rescripted almost every moment of day after day existence. And combating it — whether or no longer by procuring for a vaccine or in search of to present protection to household — takes colorful the enemy. It’s the well-known first step in what might maybe maybe also very neatly be an extended quest for some model of normalcy.

“There’s light on the finish of tunnel, nonetheless it’s a truly, very lengthy tunnel,” stated Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Nationwide Heart for Catastrophe Preparedness at Columbia University.

“There’s plenty we don’t know. Nevertheless I feel it’s completely obvious we’re going to be adapting to a brand unusual job of existence. That’s the reality.”


The unusual coronavirus is roughly 1,000 times narrower than a human hair. Nevertheless scrutinized by an electron scope, it is certain this enemy is neatly-armed.

Coronaviruses, alongside side the latest one, are named for the spikes that cowl their outer surface like a crown, or corona in Latin. The exhaust of these club-shaped spikes, the virus latches on to the outer wall of a human cell, invades it and replicates, atmosphere up viruses to hijack more cells.

Catch a capability to block or bind the spikes and that you just might additionally discontinuance the virus.

Once inner a human cell, the virus’ RNA, or genetic code, commandeers its machinery, offering directions to develop thousands of virus copies.

Nevertheless the coronavirus has a weak spot: an outer membrane that can even be destroyed by unusual soap. That neutralizes the virus, which is why neatly being consultants emphasize the must wash hands.

Admire organisms, viruses evolve, procuring for traits that can develop obvious survival, stated Charles Marshall, a professor of paleontology on the University of California and self-described “deep time evolutionary biologist.”

“Coronaviruses fit into the unusual evolutionary paradigm extremely neatly, which is whilst you happen to’ve had some innovation, you rep into some unusual atmosphere … you rep staunch into a human and you pause neatly, you’re going to proliferate,” Marshall stated.

There are hundreds of coronaviruses, but steady seven known to infect folks. Four are to blame for some current colds. Nevertheless in 2002, a plague known as SARS, for severe acute respiratory syndrome, unfold from China to sicken about 8,000 folks worldwide, killing more than 700. One other coronavirus known as Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, or MERS — known in 2012 — unfold to folks by camels.

The unusual coronavirus, though, has captivated scientists’ attention in disagreement to any in a long time.

When researcher Thomas Friedrich logged on to his laptop on the University of Wisconsin-Madison after a meeting in January, he discovered colleagues had been frantically posting messages to one yet every other concerning the unusual virus.

“Folks were getting more and more livid and initiating to brainstorm tips,” stated Friedrich, who has spent years studying other infectious diseases.

Now worthy of Friedrich’s lab is occupied with the coronavirus, studying its unfold in Wisconsin, and taking part with scientists world wide examining the disease’s behavior in monkeys.

Even early on it used to make certain this virus posed a principal threat, he stated. Human immune systems had never encountered it. And in disagreement to Zika, whose unfold can even be controlled by targeting mosquitoes, or AIDS, which most in most cases requires sexual contact, the unusual virus is straight away transmitted by droplets in the air.

“It had all the hallmarks, to me, of a capability pandemic,” Friedrich stated. “In most cases, every person in the arena is susceptible.”


The unusual virus has breached borders and claimed victims with stealth and hurry that develop it complicated to discover.

Scientists are pretty obvious the disease originated in bats, which harbor many coronaviruses. To rep to folks, it would had been passed by yet every other animal, maybe consumed for meat. By unhurried January, when Chinese language authorities walled off town of Wuhan, where the disease used to be first diagnosed, it used to be too unhurried to discontinuance the unfold.

Essentially the most severe pandemic in fresh history, the “Spanish flu” of 1918, used to be unfold by contaminated squaddies dispatched to wrestle World Battle I. Nevertheless aboard ships, it took weeks for the troops and the disease to execrable oceans.

Now, with more than 100,000 industrial flights a day ferrying tourists, industry vacationers and college students around the globe, the unusual virus unfold impulsively and almost invisibly, stated clinical historian Tag Honigsbaum, author of “The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Horror, Hysteria and Hubris.”

“By the level we woke as a lot as the outbreak in Italy, it had been there for weeks if no longer months,” he stated.

Shortly after the principal case in Wuhan, Chinese language tourists with the virus traveled to France. Nevertheless clinical doctors there reported honest no longer too lengthy ago that a fishmonger reduced in size the disease even earlier than that, from an unknown offer. On January 21, the principal confirmed U.S. case used to be reported in Washington state, in a man who had traveled to Asia.

“It’s one particular person coming in from China and now we private it below defend watch over. It’s going to be steady beautiful,” President Donald Trump stated on the time. Ten days later, he blocked entry to most vacationers from China.

Nevertheless genetic diagnosis of samples taken from New York patients showed loads of the virus latest arrived from Europe as a change, and took root in February — neatly earlier than someone view to be quarantining after a outing to Madrid, London or Paris.


Since February, when Dr. Daniel Griffin started treating patients suspected of having COVID-19, he’s cared for more than 1,000 folks with the disease, first neatly-known for attacking the lungs. Nevertheless the an infection completely does no longer discontinuance there.

“I’m in actual fact alarmed,” stated Griffin, a specialist in infectious diseases at New York’s Columbia University Scientific Heart. “This virus seems to head away nothing untouched.”

Scientists are getting a address on the heaps of ways the disease impacts the body, nonetheless it’s a breeze.

The lungs are, certainly, ground zero. Many patients ranking themselves gasping for breath, unable to declare more than a observe or two.

Even after five days in the neatly being facility, Vivian Castro, the nurse who modified into contaminated, stated she returned house struggling for air.

“I climbed two flights of stairs to my room and I felt like I used to be going to die,” she stated.

The motive becomes certain in autopsies of folks which private died, some with lungs that weigh scheme more than habitual. Beneath a microscope, evidence of the virus’ destruction is even more striking.

When Dr. Sanjay Mukhopadhyay examined autopsy samples from a 77-yr-dilapidated Oklahoma man, he neatly-known changes to the runt sacs in the patient’s lungs. In a neatly beingy lung, oxygen passes by the thin partitions of these sacs into the bloodstream. Nevertheless in the Oklahoma patient, the virus had grew to turned into the sac partitions so thick with debris that oxygen used to be blocked.

The thickened partitions “were in each set,” combating the lungs from sustaining the relaxation of the body, stated Mukhopadhyay, of Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic.

Autopsies display “what the virus is definitely doing” inner patient’s bodies, stated Dr. Desiree Marshall, a pathologist on the University of Washington who honest no longer too lengthy ago examined the center of a Seattle man who died from disease.

“Each and each autopsy has the probability to repeat us something unusual,” she stated. And these insights from the bodies of the insensible might maybe maybe maybe result in extra good therapy of the residing.

The coronavirus, though, retains raising fresh questions. It left the hearts of two males in their 40s, honest no longer too lengthy ago handled by Griffin, flaccid and unable to pump sufficient blood. Some youthful folks private arrived in emergency rooms suffering strokes triggered by blood clotting, yet every other calling card.

Kidneys and livers fail in some patients and blood clots attach limbs at threat of amputation. Some patients hallucinate or private concern asserting balance. Some rep a treatable paralysis in hands or legs. Many private diarrhea, but in most cases don’t mention it except Griffin asks.

Their rationalization? “That’s the least of my considerations after I’m in a position to’t breathe.”

At the delivery, clinical doctors in most cases attach patients on ventilators if their blood oxygen ranges dropped. Nevertheless death rates were so high they now are attempting other methods first, like turning patients on their stomachs, that can support them breathe. The reality is that neatly being facility group are studying as they hurry, in most cases painfully.

“Every patient that I spy, I feel that might maybe maybe maybe’ve been me,” stated Dr. Stuart Moser, a heart specialist hospitalized in New York in March after he used to be contaminated. He remembers fearing that he might maybe maybe also very neatly be attach on a ventilator and questioning if he’d ever spy his household again. Now, relief at work, he stated worthy of what he and his colleagues private realized concerning the virus’ myriad effects enables them most efficient to address patients’ symptoms.

“It’s complicated because they’ve so many considerations and there are so worthy of patients,” Moser stated, “and you steady are making an are attempting to complete the exact thing — give folks the handiest probability to rep better.”


In fresh weeks, researchers private recruited 3,000 patients from world wide in a assert to resolve a puzzling anomaly. Why does the coronavirus ravage some beforehand healthy patients, while leaving others barely unscathed?

The challenge, known as the COVID Human Genetic Effort, makes a speciality of every body’s outlandish genetic make-as a lot as have a examine explanations for why some purchased sick while others address healthy. It’s indubitably one of several projects procuring for genetic causes of susceptibility, alongside side fresh work by other labs suggesting a hyperlink between blood form and threat of great illness.

“Step one is figuring out and step two is fixing. There will not be one of these thing as a other capability,” stated indubitably one of many challenge’s leaders, Jean-Laurent Casanova, of The Rockefeller University in New York. He’s paid by the Howard Hughes Scientific Institute, which additionally helps fund The Connected Press Health and Science Department.

His challenge makes a speciality of folks 50 or youthful who had no neatly being considerations earlier than the coronavirus attach them in intensive care. Nevertheless the query of why the disease impacts folks so in a different way has broader implications.

It’s no longer certain, to illustrate, why the disease has had this form of restricted affect on younger folks, when compared with other age groups. Folks older than 65 are neatly over 100 times more inclined to be hospitalized for the virus than folks below 18. Nevertheless to this level, there’s no causes why.

Affect younger folks face up to an infection for some motive? Or is it that, even when contaminated, they’re less inclined to rep symptoms? In that case, what does that imply about their probabilities for passing the an infection alongside to others, like their grandparents?

These aren’t steady tutorial questions. Solutions will support in assessing the hazards of reopening colleges. And they might at closing result in ways to support develop older folks resistant to the disease.

In largely sparing younger folks, the pandemic virus echoes the bugs that triggered SARS and MERS, stated Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology on the University of Florida.

Scientists marvel if younger folks might maybe maybe private some key distinction in their cells, comparable to fewer of the in actual fact knowledgeable proteins that the coronavirus latch onto. Or even their immune systems react in a different way than in adults.

Whereas the virus has largely bypassed younger folks, researchers private honest no longer too lengthy ago been worried by a principal, albeit unfamiliar, condition in some younger patients, that might maybe maybe motive inflammation in hearts, kidneys, lungs and other organs. Most patients recovered, but the aptitude for lengthy-term damage remains unsafe.

“Right here’s what occurs with a brand unusual virus,” Rasmussen stated. “There’s plenty we don’t learn about it. We’re on that steep studying curve.’’


With states and countries reopening in the face of an ongoing pandemic, it’s even more principal to search out choices. No longer lower than the closing few months private spotlighted the most serious questions.

Can folks who had been contaminated with the disease rep it again?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. authorities’s top infectious disease knowledgeable, has stated that having the disease as soon as must confer some diploma of immunity. Nevertheless it’s no longer certain how worthy or for the capability lengthy, or what ranges or kinds of antibodies folks must must give protection to them against future illness.

If some folks harbor the virus without symptoms, how can we block transmission?

The reality is that many contaminated folks obtained’t ever in actual fact feel symptoms or rep sick. That capability temperature tests and other methods primarily based on symptoms obtained’t be sufficient to discontinuance it. As a change, many consultants have faith in, frequent sorting out is wished to search out restful carriers, isolate them except they’re no longer contagious, and discover down these they might maybe maybe private contaminated. Masks and distancing can support discontinuance an infection and gradual the unfold of the virus.

Will researchers ranking medicines that can even be light to address the disease?

Hundreds of compare are below capability, sorting out existing medicines and experimental ones. To this level, most efficient one — a current steroid known as dexamethasone — has been shown to amplify survival. An antiviral treatment, remdesivir, has been shown to shorten recovery time. Two others — the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine — private no longer confirmed safe or efficient for treating COVID-19 in sizable-scale trials, but a itsy-bitsy analysis are silent sorting out them to view if they might maybe maybe maybe support discontinuance an infection or illness.

How lengthy will it use to search out a vaccine?

Scientists in extra than 150 labs world wide are pursuing a vaccine and almost two dozen candidates are in diversified phases of sorting out. Nevertheless there’s no philosophize any will pan out. Finding out if any offer appropriate safety would require sorting out thousands of folks in locations where the virus is spreading extensively. Some sizable compare are anticipated to originate this month.

“It’s almost the Ny Mission of on the present time, where an monumental quantity of sources are being dedicated to this,” stated Rene Najera, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of a vaccine history websites bustle by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Within the U.S., the intention is to private 300 million doses of capability vaccines by January. Nevertheless any that fail tests will must be thrown out. The World Health Group has known as for equitable sharing of any eventual vaccine between prosperous and miserable countries, but how that can happen is scheme from certain.

It’s additionally unsafe how worthwhile any vaccine will most likely be if a big selection of folks, their skepticism fed by misinformation, refuse to be inoculated.

Even an efficient vaccine will no longer address the probability that, given the sizable selection of coronaviruses and rising contact between folks and the animals harboring them, the arena is awfully inclined to face other pandemics, stated Honigsbaum, the clinical historian.

That capability uncertainty will linger as an indicator of the unusual habitual.

The certain wager won concerning the coronavirus might maybe maybe maybe level to worthwhile in defusing that doubt and, at closing, in defeating the enemy. The precise uncertainty, Redlener stated, is whether or no longer or no longer folks will exhaust the teachings realized to present protection to themselves from the virus — or downplay the threat at their wretchedness.


Connected Press journalists Carla K. Johnson, Marilynn Marchione, Sam McNeil and Lauran Neergaard contributed to this legend.


The Connected Press Health and Science Department receives strengthen from the Howard Hughes Scientific Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is fully to blame for all philosophize.