By Lenin O’Mahony
This week I attended a virtual event called “Ask the Experts: Virology, Vaccines, and COVID-19.” This was a YouTubeLive event where a number of experts were present to answer and discuss questions relating to the science behind the virus and the pandemic we are currently in. During the presentation we heard from Professor Vidya Chandrasekaran, PhD, Professor Keith Garrison, PhD, and Karl Beutner '71 MD, PhD. Their insights and understanding of how this virus works and why it has become such a concern for the global community was informative and clear for the viewers.
COVID-19 is part of a group of viruses that are called Corona, all of which share the common characteristic of spikes on the outside. These spikes are used to latch onto healthy cells and infect them. COVID-19 spikes are slightly different to other viruses though, a feature that likely developed while it was infecting bats. The experts discussed how many in the scientific community had expected the next big virus to come from the flu strain, not the SARS virus, meaning we were at a disadvantage when COVID-19 became present.
One big distinction between the flu virus and SARS is they attack different cells in the body, and the flu virus stays primarily in the respiratory system. SARS COVID-19 however, infects other systems in the body. The virus uses its spikes to lock with specific enzymes, which are receptors present within the respiratory system, as well as the nervous system, heart, and GI tract. Because of this the symptoms of COVID-19 are very broad.
The initial stage of infection is when the virus comes into contact with respiratory cells, and because of the unique characteristics of COVID-19, the immune system response is delayed. This means that the virus has much more time than the flu for example, to infect the body and spread before symptoms show up with the immune response.
Three to four days after initial symptoms a patient may experience difficulty breathing, and then the lower tract is infected after the upper tract, resulting in dead cell debri and possible pneumonia. A severe case means the immune system may release a reaction into the bloodstream to fight the virus, however, because the virus has been present for so long, this reaction causes harm to all organs in the body, resulting in a need for supplemental oxygen. This immune system response will severely damage the already weakened organs, possibly causing multiple organ failure.
One of the key reasons COVID-19 is able to remain undetected is because it is able to avoid an innate immune response. The innate immune system is common and more basic, compared to the adaptive immune system. The adaptive immune system is more unique, and produces antibodies among other things. The flu is consistently recognized and fought by the first immune system response, which is the innate system. COVID-19 is only caught by the second adaptive immune system response.
During the hour long discussion, the experts covered many topics and answered questions about the pandemic, testing, vaccines, and the virus itself. Saint Mary's College of California has been working hard to provide many virtual events and discussions for the college community, so we can all continue to learn and act with knowledge.
I encourage everyone to watch this discussion themselves, which is still available on Youtube, at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DnYhjmr3tU&feature=youtu.be
Melanie Moyer '22,