Food Safety in the Time of COVID-19: Why is the coronavirus different?

The coronavirus that we are all dealing with this year has some startling differences and also some similarities from other viruses that we have heard about before. About 15-30% of common colds every year are caused by a type of coronavirus. COVID-19 is a disease caused by a particularly virulent and contagious coronavirus.

What is a coronavirus? Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that may cause illness in animals or humans. In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The most recently discovered coronavirus causes coronavirus disease COVID-19.

Viruses are infectious particles composed of nucleic acids and proteins that depend on cells for energy. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is an enveloped RNA virus. Viruses can’t live on their own; viruses are like hijackers. Viruses invade living, normal cells and use healthy cells to multiply and produce other viruses like themselves. This can kill, damage, or change healthy cells and make you sick. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 attacks the specific cells of the airways causing a respiratory infection.

A New York Times article referred to the coronoavirus as ‘bad news wrapped in protein.’ According to the NYTimes article, the coronavirus hijacks a healthy cell in the human lungs and works to build fluid-filled bubbles within infected cells. Inside these bubbles, parts for new copies of the virus are constructed. Other proteins of the coronavirus build the distinctive spikes that extend from the envelope and appear to attach to cells in the airways or lungs. Once attached, the virus can invade a healthy cell (NYTimes 3/11/2020). It is the ‘crown-like spikes’ of the virus envelope that give coronaviruses their name. Scientists tell us that the envelope of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 falls apart on contact with soap which is the reason hand washing is recommended as an important defense against the disease.

For most viral infections, treatments can only help with symptoms while you wait for your immune system to fight off the virus.  Most COVID-19 infections cause a fever as the immune system fights to clear the virus. In severe cases, the immune system can overreact and start attacking lung cells. The lungs become obstructed with fluid and dying cells, making it difficult to breathe. A small percentage of infections can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, and possibly death. Antibiotics do not work for viral infections. There are antiviral medicines to treat some viral infections and vaccines can help prevent you from getting some viral diseases. Scientists are hard at work to try and discover antiviral medicines to treat COVID-19 and a vaccine to protect the population against the disease.

Currently the best way to avoid getting infected with the coronavirus is to wash your hands with soap and water, to avoid touching your face (especially your mouth, nose and eyes), to keep your distance from people who are sick (or who may be sick but don’t yet know), and to regularly clean frequently used surfaces.  Stay well and food-safe, Barb