By now, you’ve likely noticed that COVID-19 is a pandemic respiratory illness. You’ve also probably noticed that there’s a great deal of information available online pertaining to both the illness and the virus (SARS-CoV-2, or simply “coronavirus”) which causes it. A great deal of this information is dense and difficult to interpret, or (conversely) lacking in sufficient detail, or apparently contradictory. My goal in this series is to provide you clear, concise scientific information on topics immediately relevant to life in the time of COVID-19. Each article will contain an evidence-backed take-home message and conceptual summary at the top, followed by a fully-cited deeper dive into the cell biology, molecular genetics, biochemistry, or physics behind the summary.

These articles are not a substitute for medical or public health advice. If you are unwell, or at all in doubt, please refer to your healthcare provider and/or local public health authority.

Information from the World Health Organization, the U.S.A. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment

An illustration of a coronavirus provided by the CDC (public domain). The virion appears roughly spherical and has protein "spikes" projecting from its surface.
An illustration of a coronavirus provided by the CDC (public domain). The virion appears roughly spherical and has protein "spikes" projecting from its surface.

If you have questions or comments on any of the articles, or if you have suggestions for topics you’d like to see covered, please contact the primary author: Rachel Jones, Little Shop of Physics Science Writer, at rrjones@rams.colostate.edu

Please feel free to share any of these articles, in whole or in part, on social media or in a classroom; if you do so, provide a link back to the original article or otherwise fully credit the author and the Colorado State University College of Natural Sciences Little Shop of Physics.

A few technical notes for articles this series:

  1. COVID-19 is an illness caused by the virus formally named SARS-CoV-2, and widely known simply as “coronavirus”. The name “COVID-19” stands for “coronavirus disease 2019” (the illness emerged in 2019), and SARS-CoV-2 stands for “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”. Coronaviruses are actually a rather large group of viruses, so named for their apparent spiky “crown” when viewed at high magnification. You may well have had a “common cold” caused by a member of the coronavirus group at some point in your life. However, some coronaviruses cause more severe illness: SARS-CoV-2 appears to be most closely related to the virus (SARS-CoV) that caused an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the early 2000s.
  2. Virologists only call viral pathogens “viruses” when they are within or in the process entering a host cell. What you are really concerned about when you’re out in the world are technically virions or viral particles — infectious viral agents that are not contained within a host cell. For the sake of clarity, we will refer to only to “viruses” in headlines and summaries, but will draw the distinction between viruses and virion in deep dives.
  3. The scientific information provided in article’s deep dive section will be clearly cited. Due to the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the scientific articles referenced will be preprints, which have not yet undergone academic peer review. At the time of this writing (spring 2020), a great deal of research is moving forward on the strength of preprints, and while there is always room for science to self-correct, these articles are an important source of evidence even in the absence of peer review. Should new evidence arise, articles will be amended or corrected when possible. Additionally, efforts will be made to source articles that are not behind a paywall (this is an advantage of preprints, which are free to access). However, some cited articles and books may only be accessible through a university library or by payment to a journal.

Up next

The next post will discuss “flattening the curve”. This is a phrase you probably didn’t know before, but which you almost certainly do now. What does it mean? Why is it important? How can you help? And if we can flatten the curve now, what do scientists think it may look like in the future? Stay tuned, and please do get in touch if you’d like to request a future topic!

Posted articles

A diagrammatic representation of a lipid bilayer separating the extracellular space from the interior of the cell. One of the molecular subunits of the bilayer is shown in magnified view. This molecule is a phospholipid. The molecule has a phosphate-containing hydrophilic head and two hydrophobic fatty acid “tails". The tails make the hydrophobic portion of the molecule about as wide as the hydrophilic portion.

Everything You Need to Know About Washing Your Hands

Public health authorities all have the same message for you right now: If you don’t want to get coronavirus, stay home, and wash your hands. Hand sanitizer, so long as at least 60% alcohol, is offered as a backup to hand-washing. What’s going on here? Why is a product with “sanitize” in the name playing second fiddle to soap and water? Because, as we’ll discuss today, soap doesn’t just wash coronaviruses off your hands. It destroys them using thermodynamics. Read more…

This is an image of materials provided in the CDC’s COVID-19 test. A small open box contains four very small vials of reagents secured in styrofoam. The lid of the box is visible in the background; it bears the CDC’s logo and reads, in part, “CDC 2019-nCoV real-time RT-PCR Panel… For research use only… Not for use in diagnostic procedures”.

Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19 Testing

Finding a virus is a non-trivial scientific procedure. Equipment shortages and other challenges have limited who can be tested for COVID-19 in the U.S.A. Expanding the capacity for accurate, fast testing a serious challenge; we can’t solve it here, but hopefully you’ll walk away from this article with a bit more insight into the mechanics of COVID-19 testing, and some hope for the solutions that scientists are actively and swiftly developing. Read more…

This image shows a row of colorful, home-made fabric face coverings. The CDC recommends people make and wear such face coverings in public. The image is provided by the CDC and bears the agency's logo.

Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19 Transmission

As is true of a great many facets of the COVID-19 pandemic, our understanding of coronavirus transmission is incomplete. Yet, in an era when a vast internet of information and misinformation is freely available, knowing what is unknown can be nearly as valuable as possessing concrete information. Indeed, this is often true in science (albeit with lower stakes). In this week’s installment, we’ll discuss what we know, what we don’t know, and what you can do about coronavirus transmission. Read more…