The Microscopic Menace
As you read this, hopefully in the safety and comfort of your home, the world outside tirelessly battles an inconspicuous enemy. Equally intriguing is the fact that no place, person or entity has been left untouched or unaffected by the same, making the ongoing coalition of humanity at a global level serendipitous in every respect. While our inspiring healthcare professionals as well as our visionary leaders continue to work with their undying sense of sincerity and diligence, making their job easier in whatever way we can becomes our moral duty. It just takes a single person to start an outbreak and it also takes just that same person to prevent it. Our awareness and actions are hence much more significant than we think they are.
You Cannot Fight an Enemy You Don’t Understand
As a way to understand what precautions we can take for ourselves and others, let’s start with knowing about this viral species. From a layman’s perspective, the coronavirus discovered in 2019, or COVID-19, is structurally quite ordinary, just consisting of its genetic material (single-strand RNA) enveloped in a sac-like shell made of protein. This protein shell is covered by another lipid envelope that is like its body, having a number of arms called ‘spikes’ allowing it to grab and hold onto new surfaces, which is especially risky if our hands come into contact these surfaces. This is where our first precaution comes into the picture –washing our hands with soap, disinfectant or sanitiser helps to dissolve this lipid envelope of the virus, rendering it unsuccessful in its malicious ploy to infect us. However, surfaces alone are not the only danger. As recently declared by the WHO, the virus can stay active for as long as three hours in air through droplets sneezed or coughed out by an infected person. Hence, wearing a mask that filters out the relatively large diameters of the viral particles (virions) can be useful, though the extent of how helpful masks are remains a question of ongoing debate and discussion in the medical community.
The next step is the site of its infection – the lung’s alveoli. These air-sacs are similar to tiny balloons that inflate and deflate as we breathe. During this infection, the virus uses one of its spikes to attach to a receptor (ACE2) on an alveolar cell called type-2 pneumocyte. What makes this alveolar cell special is its ability to make a substance called a surfactant. This has an action similar to what soap or detergent has on the surface of water. It eases the tension on the lung surface as it expands with air. So, if the alveoli were like a small balloon, the surfactant prevents the balloon from deflating easily. So the balloon can be inflated easily and accommodate as much air as possible.
Without this surfactant, this balloon-like alveolus will deflate faster than it inflates. At one point, it will become completely deflated, causing what we call an alveolar collapse. As you might expect by now, this means that the person will suffer from a shortness of breath (dyspnea) and even cough. Any such signs should be brought to the attention of doctor at the earliest stage. This is also the reason that many drugs being developed are targeting this receptor on the pneumocyte to prevent the infection in the first place.
However, the real beast unleashed by the virus is when it modulates immune functions to attack your own cells, which could lead to a period of autoimmunity. However, the good news is that most people’s immune systems are able to overwhelm the virus-infected cells, reestablish control and eventually overcome the infection. This is precisely why a large number of people are able to recover quickly. Therefore, immunity-boosting activities like regular exercise, sleeping well and eating fibre-rich foods can go a long way, not for us alone but for everyone around us.
By keeping all these simple facts in mind, understanding what precautions to take and why as well as learning and spreading more awareness on this contagion, we will rise above this virulent menace. Stay home and stay safe.