American scientists have released the first images of the new corona virus that has spread to more than 70,000 people worldwide and has killed more than 1,700.
Scientists from the National Institute of Health (NIH) collected the sample from an infected American, although it is unclear which.
They recorded images of the virus that emerged from different cell types and had their teams of medical visual artists colorize the virus to better delineate the virus from the healthy cells.
Scientists were not surprised to see that the microscope images resemble those of the related SARS virus, with which the new one now shares a partial name: SARS-CoV-2.
The artist’s stunning colorings of corona virus images taken with a powerful electron microscope reveal its crown-like shape
These are the most detailed, high-resolution images taken so far of the new pathogen
Coronaviruses are named as family after the resemblance of their shape to a corona or crown (not to be confused, as many social media users have done with beer).
Bacteria are cells composed of organelles, the same basic structures that form humans, animals and plants, but viruses are constructed differently.
Instead, they consist of only DNA or RNA, enclosed by a protein shell, called a capsid. Some have an extra outer layer.
One virus differs from another in its genetic composition – the RNA and DNA – and the proteins on the outside that allow it to invade the membranes of other cells.
Coronaviruses are surrounded by pointed shells that give them the likeness of a crown.
These spike proteins appear as slightly vague points protruding from the perimeter of each virus particle in the vivid photos released by the NIH.
Sequencing the new spike proteins of the new virus has enabled other NIH scientists – namely Michael Letko and Vincent Munster – to identify it as a close relative of SARS.
The death toll rose by another 105 people in China on Monday, with worldwide fatalities close to 1,800 and more than 71,710 cases worldwide
Health workers monitor the condition of a coronavirus patient. They hope that understanding the structure of the virus will help scientists find treatments and vaccines faster
This artist’s depiction shows the protein scale of the corona virus, or capside in blue
And the similarity to SARS led the World Health Organization to not only name the virus SARS-CoV-2 (and the disease it causes COVID-19), but also to make a naming convention that connects the two viruses.
Proteins that make up these spikes also suggest to the scientists that this virus originally came from bats and that mutations along their evolutionary progression cause the virus to penetrate into human cells – especially respiratory cells.
In the microscope images, the cells may emerge from some cells to attack others, sometimes in highly concentrated clusters.
Viruses are strange, small animals.
In fact, they are so small that they cannot be seen with a light microscope as you would find in most high school or university classrooms.
SARS-CoV-2 (shown here in yellow) consists of particles that are much smaller than the cells that form human or animal tissues (shown here in blue and purple)
Instead, NIH scientists had to use a more powerful electron microscope to see the particle.
Because they are so simplistic, viruses cannot survive and multiply independently, so they must find a host to live on.
They take the enzymes of other living beings with them to derive energy with which they can replicate.
Electron microscope images show these small attackers emerging and moving between cells to feed.
Identifying the shape and structure of the virus won’t stop it, for example, but it gives scientists important clues about how to disarm it.
Monday, Chinese scientists reported giving infected patients plasma transfusions of people recovered from the disease.
Viral particles (yellow) can penetrate different types of human and animal tissues (red and gray). SARS-CoV-2 is skilled in attacking respiratory tissues
This type of treatment can work because the plasma of recovered people contains antibodies that their immune system has built up to identify the virus by attacking its spiky protein shell.
In China, trials are also underway to test the use of HIV antiviral drugs against the new virus.
Another treatment that has been tested in at least one of the 15 American patients – the first in Washington – uses a drug originally designed to treat Ebola and appears to be anecdotally more effective in the treatment of COVID-19 than for the treatment of haemorrhagic fever. .
In tests conducted on macaques last week, scientists reported that the drug appeared to work against MERS – another related coronavirus – both to treat it and to prevent it.
This is also likely because they share similar protein peaks, identifiable in the newly released images.
And it is these genomic and structural similarities that suggest that the vaccine developed by American scientists to treat SARS during the 2003 outbreak and now withdrawn from storage can be modified to work against the new virus that is occurring around the world is being used and has infected more than 71,000 people.