Viruses are everywhere.
They are more common than any other biological matter.
An estimated 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 viruses exist on the earth at any one time, laid end-to-end they’d stretch for 100 million light-years; numbers that would put astrophysics to shame.
They are the most advanced biological entities at a molecular level, carrying the technology to invade and hijack cells. Most are harmless, and some are deadly.
But how do we get infected, how do they spread, and how can we avoid catching them?
What is a virus?
Viruses are microscopic parasites, typically much smaller than bacteria, and cannot live and reproduce outside of a host.
Viruses have a reputation for being the sole cause of contagion.
Widespread events bolster this reputation. The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the 2009 H1N1/swine flu pandemic, and the current COVID-19 pandemic all contribute to this reputation.
Viruses are not alive, but they are biologically active
Without living cells and organisms, viruses would be nothing. They need living cells to survive and reproduce. They can’t function without a host.
So, whilst away from a cell, the virus transforms into an infectious particle known as the virion.
Protected by a coating, the virus can exist and stay active without a host cell for a limited time.
Meaning the virus’s nanomachinery can stay assembled with the capability of infecting a living organism for specific periods, and this can range from seconds to days depending on the virus type and conditions.
Viruses infect cells by penetrating them and using their molecular machinery to replicate themselves. Whether a virus can attach to a cell depends on the compatibility of proteins on the surface of the virion and the cell membrane.
New virions leave the cell, destroying it in the process as they go on to infect neighbouring cells and repeat the process.
The structure of a virus
The genetic code of the virus, recorded in the molecular structure of DNA or RNA, contains all the necessary instructions for the viral particle to replicate itself after entering the cell. It is surrounded by a protective shell of protein known as a capsid.
COVID-19 virus and a selection of other viruses are encased in an envelope made up of fatty organic molecules called lipids.
It’s why COVID-19 is referred to as an enveloped virus. These fatty envelopes are easily destroyed by simple detergents, such as hand soap, hence the advice to wash hands regularly with soap and water.
Coranaviruses and their sources
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses, some of which cause respiratory illness in humans, from the common cold to more rare and serious illnesses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), as written in the World Health Organization (WHO) document.
The appearance of coronaviruses under a microscope resembles a crown, with tiny proteins sticking out of a circular form. Hence the name corona (crown).
Some of the CoVs can infect several animal species, and mutations of the viruses are thought to be the reason for jumps across species. Thus, SARS-CoV infected civet cats and infected humans in 2002 and MERS-CoV is found in dromedary camels and infected humans in 2012.
The COVID-19 virus is close to the CoV strain which is typical amongst bats, and bats were thought to be the origin of the SARS-CoV-2. But the current official position of WHO declares that, since there is usually very limited close contact between humans and bats, it is more likely that transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans happened through an intermediate host, that is another animal species more likely to be handled by humans.
Until the source of the coronavirus (COVID-19) virus has been identified and controlled, there is a risk of reintroduction of the virus into the human population and the risk of new outbreaks like the ones we are currently experiencing. Therefore, we need to continue having protective measures in place.
What makes a virus deadly?
The virulence of a virus affects how severely it damages an infected host. It also refers to how well the virus can get around our natural or vaccine stimulated defences.
Viruses are subject to evolution and natural selection, and most of them evolve rapidly. The viral genetic code does not have effective protection, which allows more errors during replication. This leads to the fact that new strands of viral RNA or DNA will have large mutations.
The new properties of mutated viruses that help evade the immune system and spread to other hosts tend to persist from one generation to the next. Those that reduce the virus’s ability to spread are usually lost. If a virus has a mutation that kills its host before the host infects others, these mutations will disappear.
Deadly virulent virus strains can eventually evolve within the virus population inside a host.
How do airborne viruses spread?
Viruses spread from person to person.
When someone coughs or sneezes, droplets with a large number of virions fly out and could land on another nearby person’s face or could be inhaled which is even more dangerous.
Also, viruses spread on the surface, for example, tables, doorknobs, chairs, anywhere a hand has touched. Droplets, aerosols, shedded skin and even sweat can carry the virus into the air, onto these surfaces and between people at close contact.
In the air, viruses can remain infectious for hours but on surfaces sometimes even more than a day. If you take into account all the places you visit every day, such as the grocery store, public transport, the gym, you will find that you may have touched surfaces that hundreds of hands touched and breathed air among many people, and then you understand that without protection, there is a high probability of infection.
Getting infected with a virus actually turns your body into a storage tank for the virus as it’s busy replicating inside your cells. Every additional cough, sneeze and discharge of any bodily fluids will see many viral particles released.
How does the coronavirus spread?
The latest science defines SARS-CoV-2’s principal transmission methods as:
- Inhalation of air carrying very small fine droplets and aerosol particles that contain the infectious virus. The risk of transmission is highest within one to two meters of the source of infection (when the infected person is breathing, talking, singing, exercising, coughing, sneezing), where the concentration of these very small droplets and particles is the highest.
- Deposition of virus carried in exhaled droplets and particles onto exposed mucous membranes (i.e., “splashes and sprays”, such as being coughed on). The risk of transmission is likewise greatest close to an infectious source where the concentration of these exhaled droplets and particles is greatest.
- Touching mucous membranes with hands soiled by exhaled respiratory fluids containing a virus or from touching inanimate surfaces contaminated with the virus.
This is how the COVID-19 virus has spread so rapidly, the smallest very fine droplets, and aerosol particles formed when these fine droplets rapidly dry, are small enough that they can remain suspended in the air for minutes to hours, unknowingly infecting others.
In addition, because the virus remains active on some surfaces for up to 24 hours, anyone who touches an infected surface and then does not wash their hands before touching their nose, eyes, or mouth area might become infected.
All this knowledge allows us to understand how best to protect ourselves from viruses.
6 tips to protect yourself and others from viruses
Protecting ourselves from viruses has been at the forefront of medicine for decades, even centuries.
1. Wash your hands
Handwashing with soaps and sanitisers kills germs from hands and prevents infections because:
- People frequently touch their eyes, mouth and nose without realising it. Germs, bacteria and viruses can enter the body through these cavities.
- Germs from unwashed hands are transferred to other objects, like handrails, tabletops, or toys, and then transferred to another person’s hands.
- Therefore, removing germs through handwashing helps prevent diarrhoea and respiratory infections and may even help prevent skin and eye infections.
2. Social distancing
Having no close contact with others is the best way to diminish the spread of viruses and diseases.
Social distancing means keeping a safe space between yourself and other people not from your household.
To practice social distancing, stay at least 2 metres from others who do not form part of your household.
By wearing a mask, you protect others plus yourself. Masks work best when everyone wears one, and people must wear them correctly. Masks must completely cover the nose and mouth and fit nicely without any gaps on the sides of a face.
However, for many, wearing a mask may not be feasible. People with respiratory problems or those who need to wear them for long periods like while working can use other means of protection such as wearable air purifiers.
Respiray’s wearable UV air purifier disinfects 99% of the air you breathe in with invisible UV-C light. The air purifier takes in unfiltered air, runs it through our patent-pending UV disinfection module that eliminates viruses and bacteria, and blows clean air to the front of your face. This allows you to breathe pathogen-free air.
It’s an alternative to face masks, and it sits comfortably on your shoulders.
You can attach the face shield to protect against coughs, sneezes, and other respiratory droplets for additional protection.
Other noticeable benefits are being able to breathe freely without wearing a face mask, being able to convey facial expressions to others (critical for work, school and business environments) and less impact on the environment as it is reusable.
5. Eating healthily
A healthy diet is vital for the body.
It protects you by boosting your immune system, so in the event you catch a virus, your body reacts quicker against the virus.
A healthy diet comprises a combination of several foods. These include:
- Cereals (wheat, barley, rye, maise or rice) or starchy foods (potato, yam, taro or cassava).
- Legumes (lentils and beans).
- Fruit and vegetables.
- Foods from animal sources (meat, fish, eggs and milk).
6. Active lifestyle
Getting enough physical activity is tough when instructed to remain at home. However, it’s possible to be physically active whilst social distancing.
Even going for a walk and getting fresh air can contribute to better mental health levels should you feel fed up from being in endless lockdowns.
Physical activity improves energy levels and our mood, reducing anxiety and blood pressure.
Even walks and getting fresh air can contribute to better mental health levels should you feel fed up from being in endless lockdowns.
Protecting yourself against viruses
We will catch a virus; there is no hiding from them.
They are impossible to avoid.
Our best strategy is to limit our exposure to them and ensure that our body and surroundings are virus-free as much as we can.
Logically, keeping a safe distance from others in public and wearing a face mask that covers the mouth and nose. Other options like our own wearable air purifier and medical-grade masks will protect you from unwanted airborne viruses.
Washing hands and sanitising surfaces helps to reduce the risk of picking up viral material from fomites or infected objects and surfaces.