Research Essay on the History of Coronavirus and Variants of COVID-19
The world came to a standstill because of a deadly, viral disease that emerged last December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) eliminated the entire world’s health security as it had spread in all seven continents and even took the lives of more than a million people. COVID-19 also made every single country with known infections face a socio-economic crisis. Ever since it has started spreading, people are losing their source of income and stability.
The ever growing fear of being infected by COVID-19 has been present in everyone’s daily lives since day one. And if that’s not enough, the virus is now mutating and there exists an even greater fear for one of the new variants of the coronavirus disease as it was found to have a higher spread rate than the original strain. This research paper will focus on coronavirus disease 2019 and its known variants.
What does "novel" in novel CoronaVirus mean?
CoronaVirus Disease (COVID-19)
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) belongs to the family of Coronaviridae in the Nidovirales order. It contains a single-stranded RNA as a nucleic material and the coronavirus has four subgroups namely alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. COVID-19 is under the subgroup beta. Because of the crown-like spikes on the virus’ outer surface, it was named coronavirus. However, on February 2020, the World Health Organization has given the novel coronavirus outbreak an official unabbreviated name – COVID-19. ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease (Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), 2020) and 19 to represent the year in which the virus emerged.
Coronavirus are zoonotic viruses which means that the virus can be transmitted from carrier animals to humans. It is common in different species of animals like bats, cats, camels, cattle, and raccoon dogs. But because coronavirus is a zoonotic virus, there are of course many types of recorded human coronaviruses and there are even more types of coronavirus present in animals that has not yet infected humans. However, COVID-19, being a novel coronavirus, is caused by a coronavirus that has not been previously passed on to humans.
To clear it up, coronaviruses are not new in the field of virology. Coronaviruses had been around for a long time and have previously infected humans. It is the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 that is newly discovered when it was first identified in Wuhan China. Scientists have been studying and learning more about COVID-19 each day to gain more insight and at the same time gather needed information to formulate an effective vaccine.
COVID-19 posed a significantly negative impact on the entire world as it disrupted major societal functions, mainly in the healthcare sector. Aside from that, it restricted countless businesses from functioning, schools in giving proper high quality education, and people from living their normal lives. Coronavirus does not only affect a person’s physical health when infected, but also their mental health whether they are infected or not.
People infected with COVID-19 develop mild to severe symptoms. Some are lucky enough to recover without needing to be hospitalize but some sadly faced their death. People with underlying diseases or are of old age are more susceptible to being infected by COVID-19. Common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing. Less common symptoms that develop in some who have been infect are body pains, headache, sore throat, diarrhea, conjunctivitis, discoloration or rashes on skin, and loss of taste and/or smell. In severe cases, symptoms include chest pains and difficulty or loss of speech and/or movement. Severe cases of COVID-19 may lead to pneumonia, kidney failure, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and/or death.
COVID-19 can be transmitted from person to person via droplets coming from the respiratory system of those who are infected – even if they are asymptomatic – through saliva, sneezing, and coughing. This is the main reason why wearing face masks at all times when going outdoors and regularly disinfecting hands is encouraged. Because COVID-19 is an airborne disease, it does not matter if you touch another person or even an object or not. COVID-19 can be transmitted through direct, indirect, or even just close contact with an infected person.
Touching the face, specifically the nose, mouth, or eyes is highly discouraged because this is another way for the virus to get into the human’s system. In addition, COVID-19 can contaminate surfaces and objects and stay there for hours to days on end depending on the material and the environment it is exposed to. As infected patients are examined closely by the doctors, it has been found that COVID-19 may also be transmitted through biological samples or human waste like urine and feces.
Source of CoronaVirus disease 2019
The novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2 is classified as beta coronavirus just like the Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus of 2012 and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) of 2003. Just like the two prior emergence of the coronavirus in humans, COVID-19 is also believed by experts to have originated from bats.
COVID-19 was discovered in the city of Wuhan in China. The sudden outbreak of pneumonia with reasons unknown in the location pushed the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission to report the situation to the World Health Organization . It was then linked to the Hua Nan open-air seafood and wet animal wholesale market where customers buy fresh meat and fish. Some stalls even sell banned, exotic or rather wild meat of cobras, raccoon dogs, and bats.
The coronaviruses found in animals like bats and raccoon dogs rarely infect humans. However, the crowded environment of the Hua Nan market allowed the viruses from the different animals in the market to swap genes. Thus, the virus mutated up to the point where it had started to infect and be transmitted among humans. Wuhan being a major transport hub made it possible for the virus to be transmitted to surrounding provinces in China.
Over time, the virus spread to other countries and had successfully infected people who have had zero direct contact with animals. Scientists deduced that the virus is now being spread from one person to another through this information. Meanwhile, most people are unaware of the danger of interacting with other people as they can be carriers who are unknowingly spreading the virus. As it had transmitted in a worldwide range, COVID-19 has been classified as a pandemic.
Coronavirus have long been discovered before the COVID-19 emerged in China. The first identified coronavirus in humans caused a common cold and was identified way back 1965. Later, a group of similar human and animal viruses have been discovered by researchers and was named coronavirus because of its spiky surface. To date, there are seven coronaviruses that are identified to infect humans.
The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), H5N1 influenza A, H1N1 2009 and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) caused acute lung injury (ALI) and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) which eventually led to pulmonary failure and result in fatality. These diseases were believed to only infect animals until the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) surfaced in 2003 (Shereen et al., 2020).
However, there are seven known types of human coronaviruses. The common types of human coronaviruses are 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1 while SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and COVID-19 are coronaviruses from animals that have mutated up to the point where it can be transmitted to humans. SARS-CoV was first detected in China in the year 2003. SARS-CoV was found to have been transmitted from civet cats to humans. Like COVID-19, it is an airborne virus that can be spread through small droplets of saliva and contaminated surfaces. It quickly spread to 28 other countries because it has the ability to be transmitted to those who are travelling by air. Over 8,000 people got infected and almost 800 of them died.
MERS-CoV, on the other hand, was transmitted to humans by dromedary camels. It was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012. COVID-19 and MERS-CoV have similar symptoms like shortness of breath, diarrhea, fever, cough, and in some cases, pneumonia. MERS-CoV spread to 27 countries and has infected almost 2,500 people. It has the mortality rate of 35% which means more than 800 of those infected have died. Out of the three new human coronaviruses, MERS-CoV has the highest death rate. Its origins are not fully understood by the scientists but it is believed that like COVID-19, it has originated from bats. The bats then somehow transmitted the virus to camels long ago and has infected the humans.
Strains vs. Variants
It can be observed how news outlets tend to use the terms strains and variants interchangeably when referring to changes in COVID-19. However, according to scientists, the two terms are different from one another and should not be used interchangeably as it would cause confusion – which it already has. So in an interview by CTVNews.ca, a PhD student from the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Jean-Paul Soucy has explained the terms’ nuance from each other.
Basically, Soucy explained the correct terms to use depending on what the news report is referring to. For one, the term strain is typically being used for developments on the coronavirus. However, the term strain is actually referring to SARS-CoV 2 or COVID-19 itself as a whole. SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and COVID-19 are the ones to be classified under strains. Strains are part of a wider family. For instance, the strains SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and COVID-19 are part of the coronavirus family. According to Soucy, a strain of a virus has distinct properties and a particular immune response. Then there's going to be lots and lots of variants which will be, in many cases, minor accumulations of mutations and different kind of genetic lines of that strain.
Next, the term often confused with strain is the word variant. A variant of a virus is filed under its strain. Viruses are expected to change through mutation and when a strain of the virus develops a specific group of mutations, variants are expected to emerge once the mutations manage to change even a minor portion of the strain’s genetic code. A minor change is needed before classifying it as a variant since some mutations don’t have any function. So, through mutations, variants can be formed. Those variants are expected to behave differently from its original form, which is the strain. In other words, strains are the original form of the virus itself and variants are mutated forms of the strain.
It is possible that discovered variants of a viruses may disappear while others persist. However, variants may also mutate enough to be considered a different strain from its original form altogether. The newly discovered variants of the strain COVID-19 are still under observation of scientists but none has mutated enough to be considered a new strain. And to the relief of those developing vaccines, the developed and under development vaccines are seen to be effective on the variants of COVID-19.
What are the differences between the initial and new variants of Covid-19?
CoronaVirus Strains and Variants
As of writing, there are 94.96 million people reported to have been infected with COVID-19 since the day it emerged. That number includes more than 2 million deaths. Over 2020, the novel coronavirus has been mutating since then but its mutations have had little to no effect to the strain. Until recently, the mutations of the virus had become strong enough to create three new variants of the strain COVID-19. The three new variants are found in different countries and seem to show an evolutionary advantage.
The past year, the coronavirus had been mutating at a steady rate of two per month. It isn’t strong for a virus but gaining enough mutations to create a new variation of the virus does not seem surprising given COVID-19’s transmission rate. Scientists are still studying each individual mutation and the role of each mutation is still unclear. However, N501Y, the mutation in the spike protein of COVID-19 is worth taking note of because all three variations have it. Coronavirus enters human cells by using its spike proteins and the N501Y mutation allowed the spike proteins to easily bind and enter cells. Thus, increasing the chances of the virus to become more transmissible.
In advanced biology classes, reading the names of mutations is being taught. Because the mutation N501Y is found in the spike protein of the virus, noting that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins is important. The N in the mutation code stands for the amino acid asparagine. The numbers 501 means that the 501 st amino acid is originally an asparagine. The letter Y means that the 501st amino acid has been changed to the amino acid tyrosine. In short, the 501st amino acid was originally an asparagine but has mutated to a tyrosine.
The three newly discovered variants of COVID-19 that were discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil have already been given specific names by scientists but they are yet to standardize the names of each variant. The names for the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil variants are as follows: B.1.1.7, and 20I/501Y.V1, and VOC 202012/01; B.1.351 or 20C/501Y.V2; and B.1.1.248, P.1, and 20J/501Y.V3, respectively. It must be noted that variants change in behavior is due to multiple mutations and does not depend on just a single mutation.
The variant of COVID-19 discovered in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7 has 23 mutations. Recently, the same variant has also been found in Ireland in Denmark because research has found that the UK variant has higher transmission rates that the original COVID-19 strain. It has now been found prevalent in London and some parts of England. It has also been detected in Canada and the United States where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that it is highly likely that B.1.1.7 will be the dominant variant.
The variant detected in South Africa, B.1.351, was found by researchers to have multiple mutations in the S protein. This means that the South Africa variant of COVID-19 is associated with a higher viral load. Like the UK variant, the South Africa variant is easily spread from human to human. However, it is independent from the UK variant. It is also reported to have the ability to evade the human’s natural immune response. Cases with this variant had been detected in the UK, Japan, Norway, and Austria.
Lastly, the Brazil variant of COVID-19, B.1.1.248, has been discovered in Japan and has 17 mutations. However, it was detected from travelers who came from Brazil. According to researchers, out of the three variations of the coronavirus, the Brazil variant is the most problematic because it has the ability to attach to cells easier like the variants found in UK and South Africa and it can evade the human’s natural immune response like the South Africa variant. This combination makes the Brazil variant of coronavirus very dangerous if not contained as soon as possible.
The COVID-19 vaccines that are already developed or is in the process of being developed is highly likely to be effective against the United Kingdom variant. However, because of the evasion of the natural human immune response properties of the South Africa and Brazil variant, scientists are unable to tell if the vaccines will be effective on these COVID-19 variants. This specific mutation may also heighten the chance to reinfect recovered people and also those who have previously been vaccinated against COVID-19. In addition, the mutations E484K and K417 found in the South Africa and Brazil variants may possibly make the coronavirus bind to cells more effectively than it previously has.
All these three variants, because of the N501Y mutation, spreads more easily than it originally have. Higher cases of people infected with coronavirus should be expected if these variants are not contained. On the bright side, researchers have found that all three COVID-19 variants do not cause a more severe illness or a higher risk of death. Even so, social distancing, vaccination, wearing of masks, disinfection, isolation, and quarantine must still be observed to further limit the spread of coronavirus.
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