THE 2019 NOVEL CORONAVIRUS (2019-nCoV) behind the ongoing outbreak—which the World Health Organization has declared an international public health emergency—was named after the family of viruses it belongs to. The term “coronavirus” may have initially been unfamiliar to many, but most everyone has encountered milder forms of such viruses, of which four strains cause about a fifth of common cold cases.
This illustration (above), created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – CDC
Other types cause diseases that are endemic in certain animal populations. But until less than two decades ago, all known human varieties caused illness so mild that coronavirus research was something of a backwater.
The latest issue of Scientific American Health & Medicine is available to download for free. The cover story describes what researchers know so far about the structure of coronaviruses and what tools we may have to disable them.