We don’t know enough about coronaviruses yet. One thing we know is that SARS-CoV-2 is not the flu. It causes a disease with different symptoms, spreads and kills more readily, and belongs to a completely different family of viruses. Coronaviruses family consists of seven members. All these members infect humans. Four of them—OC43, HKU1, NL63, and 229E—have been gently annoying humans for more than a century, causing a third of common colds. The other two—MERS and SARS both cause far more severe disease.
Why was this seventh coronavirus the one to go pandemic?
The structure of the virus gives some clues. SARS-CoV-2 is essentially a spiky ball. Those spikes recognize and stick to a protein called ACE2, which is found on the surface of our cells: This is the first step to an infection. The exact contours of SARS-CoV-2’s spikes allow it to stick far more strongly to ACE2 than SARS-classic did, and “it’s likely that this is really crucial for person-to-person transmission,” says Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University. In general terms, the tighter the bond, the less virus required to start an infection.
There’s another important feature. Coronavirus spikes consist of two connected halves, and the spike activates when those halves are separated; only then can the virus enter a host cell. In SARS-classic, this separation happens with some difficulty. But in SARS-CoV-2, the bridge that connects the two halves can be easily cut by an enzyme called furin, which is made by human cells and—crucially—is found across many tissues. “This is probably important for some of the really unusual things we see in this virus,” says Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research Translational Institute.
In general, an upper-respiratory infection spreads more easily, but tends to be milder, while a lower-respiratory infection is harder to transmit, but is more severe. SARS-CoV-2 seems to infect both upper and lower airways, perhaps because it can exploit the ubiquitous furin. This double whammy could also conceivably explain why the virus can spread between people before symptoms show up.
The new virus certainly seems to be effective at infecting humans, despite its animal origins. The closest wild relative of SARS-CoV-2 is found in bats, which suggests it originated in a bat, then jumped to humans either directly or through another species. (Another coronavirus found in wild pangolins also resembles SARS-CoV-2, but only in the small part of the spike that recognizes ACE2; the two viruses are otherwise dissimilar, and pangolins are unlikely to be the original reservoir of the new virus.) When SARS-classic first made this leap, a brief period of mutation was necessary for it to recognize ACE2 well. But SARS-CoV-2 could do that from day one. “It had already found its best way of being a [human] virus,” says Matthew Frieman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Since the start of the pandemic, the virus hasn’t changed in any obviously important ways. It’s mutating in the way that all viruses do. But of the 100-plus mutations that have been documented, none has risen to dominance, which suggests that none is especially important. “The virus has been remarkably stable given how much transmission we’ve seen,” says Lisa Gralinski of the University of North Carolina. “That makes sense, because there’s no evolutionary pressure on the virus to transmit better. It’s doing a great job of spreading around the world right now.”
Researchers can, however, offer a preliminary account of what the new coronavirus does to the people it infects. Once in the body, it likely attacks the ACE2-bearing cells that line our airways. Dying cells slough away, filling the airways with junk and carrying the virus deeper into the body, down toward the lungs. As the infection progresses, the lungs clog with dead cells and fluid, making breathing more difficult. (The virus might also be able to infect ACE2-bearing cells in other organs, including the gut and blood vessels.)
The immune system fights back and attacks the virus; this is what causes inflammation and fever. But in extreme cases, the immune system goes berserk, causing more damage than the actual virus.
But why do some people with COVID-19 get incredibly sick, while others escape with mild or nonexistent symptoms? Age is a factor. Elderly people are at risk of more severe infections possibly because their immune system can’t mount an effective initial defense, while children are less affected because their immune system is less likely to progress to a cytokine storm. But other factors—a person’s genes, the vagaries of their immune system, the amount of virus they’re exposed to, the other microbes in their bodies—might play a role too.