Viral Corona particles in an isolate

Living with viruses

SARS-CoV-2 is spreading fear, as many feel uncertain about how to deal with this epidemic. This is a reaction we can fully understand. But researchers around the world are working together to understand and help contain the new coronavirus.

Emanuel Wyler works at the MDC in the lab of Markus Landthaler.

Viruses exist everywhere on our planet. Every living thing – be it human, insect, mollusk, plant or bacteria – can be attacked by a virus. This happens when a virus enters the cells of the so-called host organism. Once inside, it either multiplies by prompting the cell to produce many new viruses, or it basically falls asleep. The latter is the case with herpes viruses, for example, which often infect us as small children and live inside us for the rest of our lives. They usually go unnoticed, but occasionally they can cause unpleasant outbreaks – known as “reactivations” – like cold sores. 

There are countless different types of virus, and they are constantly evolving. Bats, which include more than a thousand different species worldwide, represent an ideal viral melting pot. Inside these hosts, the genetic material of many different viruses is able to undergo permanent changes or combine to produce new forms. Occasionally, this results in the emergence of a new virus that can also infect humans – which brings us to the coronavirus. The newly created virus then often spreads to humans via intermediate hosts – such as dromedary camels a few years ago with MERS, or possibly a pangolin with the coronavirus. Occasionally, the virus also acquires the ability to be easily transmitted from person to person (and not just from animal to person). This is when a pandemic occurs – such as the one we are currently experiencing.

Incredible speed and willingness to cooperate 

Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case with SARS-CoV-2. The spherical viral particles are colorized blue.

The current widespread uncertainty regarding how to deal with this epidemic is understandable. It is a new virus that has barely been researched. It could mutate at any time – potentially into more dangerous forms – and currently has a death rate higher than influenza, for example. Europe, too, will see a great many people fall ill with this virus. And, even though we hope not, some will die. 

But we are not taking this fact lying down. The response of scientists around the world has shown incredible speed and willingness to cooperate. From vaccine development and drug testing to quarantine measures and transmission routes – research is being conducted in all areas in an effort to contain the virus epidemic. On platforms such as Twitter, researchers are constantly exchanging information, holding discussions, and making data accessible on preprint servers and databases – particularly from the formerly rather isolated China.

Viruses are omnipresent in our lives. But they are only as dangerous as we allow them to be. With the right measures in place, the right societal response, and increasing scientific understanding, we will be able to cope with the new coronavirus. And, in doing so, we also hope to protect those most susceptible to the virus as best we can.

The author, Emanuel Wyler, is a molecular biologist at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin and is studying various coronaviruses with scientists at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. This article first appeared in the Swiss newsletter of the organization Campex.