To understand the coronavirus better, it might help to get a coronavirus history lesson. There are a lot of people who might think COVID-19 came out of nowhere, but it really didn’t. Coronavirus has actually been around more than 50 years.
Human coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s. They’re responsible for a substantial amount of upper respiratory tract infections in adults and children. Since 2003, at least five new human coronaviruses have been identified, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In addition to SARS, doctors associate them with the common cold, bronchitis and pneumonia.
So, let’s take a brief look at the coronavirus’s history and what we can learn from it.
The human coronavirus’s history began in 1965. That’s when researchers Tyrrell and Bynoe
isolated a virus from the nose of a young boy. He was showing typical symptoms and signs of a common cold, but the researchers used the cultures they gathered to produce colds in volunteers by placing them in their noses.
Over the last 70 years, scientists have found that coronaviruses can infect mice, rats, dogs, cats, turkeys, horses, pigs and cattle. Sometimes, these animals can transmit coronaviruses to humans. The name “coronavirus” comes from the crown-like projections on their surfaces. “Corona” in Latin means “halo” or “crown.”
As time went on human and animal coronaviruses were broken into three broad groups based on their antigenic and genetic makeup. Group I contained virus 229E and other viruses, Group II contained virus OC43 and Group III was made up of avian infectious bronchitis virus and a number of related avian viruses.
Today, doctors recognize seven types of coronavirus that can infect humans. Common types include:
Rarer strains that cause more severe complications include MERS-CoV, which causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and SARS-CoV, the virus responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
That brings us to where we are today. A new strain, discovered by scientists in China in December 2019 called SARS-CoV-2 started circulating, causing the disease COVID-19.
The coronavirus outbreak that we’re experiencing is being caused by the new strain. Its foundation lies in the cultures taken by Tyrrell and Bynoe in 1965, but like all viruses, the coronavirus changes. Viruses undergo evolution and natural selection, just like cell-based life, and most of them evolve rapidly. When two viruses infect a cell at the same time, they may swap genetic material to make new, "mixed" viruses with unique properties. For example, flu strains can develop this way.
In essence, they adapt, which makes them hard to keep up with — just like the flu.
In a study that appeared in “The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal” in 2005, Dr. Kenneth McIntosh was asked in the discussion about the impact coronaviruses have on children and adults. He responded by saying: “Coronaviruses are common, and they are generally related to the upper respiratory tract family of disorders. They also trigger asthma in children and adults and severe respiratory disease in the elderly. Under the bell-shaped curve of respiratory infection, they probably cause pneumonia and bronchiolitis infections in the infant and child population. The clinical impact of coronaviruses has not yet been fully determined because much still remains to be discovered, despite recent research advances.”
So, what we can learn from the history of the coronavirus is that it is ever-changing. We’re fighting a different fight this time because these viruses never seem to be the same thing twice and they spread quickly, which is why they pose a big threat to public health.
The number of confirmed cases will continue to grow, but scientists have now replicated the virus, which is making it easier to detect in people who have the virus but are not yet showing symptoms.
The next step will be to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Human trials are already underway.
For now, just keep washing your hands, disinfecting surfaces in your home, and practicing social distancing.
Older adults are more susceptible to contracting coronaviruses, but there are other health issues older adults should be mindful of. Our guide “The Most Concerning Health Issues For Older Adults” lists them out. It includes information on the disease that affects 25% of older adults in the United States, and it’s not coronavirus.