Six months in
It has been at least six months since the novel coronavirus began replicating in human beings.
To mark the moment, our colleague Alan Burdick, a science editor, wrote a sweeping profile of the virus that explores its origins in Earth’s primordial protein soup, as well as its possible future.
“I approached this as if I were writing a magazine profile of a celebrity and I needed to talk to the people who know this person,” Alan told us. “And one of the questions that I asked the scientists that I spoke to was, ‘How do you picture this thing?’”
While President Trump has described the virus as a “genius,” “a hidden enemy” and a “monster,” Alan told us that a better description is a microscopic photocopy machine, model SARS-CoV-2.
We asked Alan to share a few more thoughts on the virus.
What was your biggest ‘aha moment’ while reporting?
Unlike previous SARS viruses, which tended to settle deeper in the respiratory system, this one tends to settle in the upper respiratory system — in your nose and throat. That means that it tends to spread with your voice, in addition to coughs and sneezes. And when you look at where a lot of the major super-spreader events have occurred, it’s places like churches where folks are singing. It’s meatpacking plants where people have to talk really loud. It’s sports arenas. It’s call centers. And I realized, holy cow, this is a virus that is ideally adapted to human conversation.
And yet, you write that the virus isn’t perfect.
That’s right. All viruses make mistakes when they make copies of themselves, but this one doesn’t make as many mistakes, or mutations — around two a month on average. Which is good for us because we are working really hard to make vaccines and drugs that would target specific aspects of this virus. And we can be pretty confident that whatever we cook up won’t be outdated six months from now because the virus has mutated again and become resistant.
Lessons and mysteries of the virus
Scientists have managed to learn a lot about the coronavirus in six months, but much remains a mystery. Our colleagues on the health and science desk have rounded up what we know and still don’t know about the virus.
One insight: Even when a vaccine becomes available, it may not lead to herd immunity. That’s because antibodies for viruses that infect mucosal surfaces, as the coronavirus does, tend to be short-lived. Historically, vaccines against respiratory illnesses have not been very effective — hence why we still catch the flu, despite widespread vaccination.
One unknown: Who was patient zero? At least one genetic scientist has argued that the virus could have started infecting humans long before late last year — when the first outbreak, in Wuhan, China, emerged — in a form that did not cause illness. It might have then spread while evolving into the version we know today. If that’s the case, we may not know the true patient zero for a very long time, if ever.
What else we’re following
What you’re doing
I have been writing letters to my loved ones with anecdotes, questions, musings and prompts. I fold and seal every one with wax. Each letter is a reminder of why I care for the person receiving it, and the responses keep my spirits high and give me something to look forward to.
— Camille Okhio, Brooklyn
Let us know how you’re dealing with the outbreak. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.