The History of Human Coronaviruses: Over 50 Years of Investigation


Sophia Robertson, Digital Media Editor/Contributing Writer, Greensboro NC

Since the end of 2019 when the first case of COVID-19 popped up in Wuhan, coronavirus has been a commonly used term on a day-to-day basis. Personally, I had never heard of the term before then. However, coronaviruses have been around for decades, as scientists first discovered coronaviruses in the mid-60s. Not necessarily the coronavirus that is affecting the entire world at the current moment but other types of the virus. COVID-19 is one strain, but there are hundreds more. Most of these have no effect on humans. Instead, many affect birds and other mammals. There are a select few that do have an effect on humans. Three are known to be deadly while you may have had one of the other four without even knowing it.


From Latin to English, the translation of corona is crown. Crown has been used to describe the shape of the virus since, despite the pathogen being invisible to the eye, there are numerous spikes on the outer layer, resembling the design of a crown.


HKU1, NL63, OC43, and 229E are letters and numbers jumbled together seeming to be meaningless. They are actually the names of common coronaviruses. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that the majority of the global population gets infected with at least one of these four during some point in their life. Symptoms of these viruses are just like the common cold: runny nose, sore throat, headache, fever, and cough. It can be transmitted through the air or human contact.


During the years 2002 and 2003, almost 800 people died of SARS-CoV and over 8,000 people were infected. This strain of coronavirus, similarly to COVID-19, is said to have originally come from bats and spread out of China. MERS-CoV, the second deadly strain, came from Jordan, but most cases were seen in Saudi Arabia. Both of these strains can cause shortness of breath, fever, body pains, coughing, and chills. The newest coronavirus that currently has the world turned upside down has been referred to as COVID-19 or Novel Coronavirus. SARS-Cov-2 is the strain of coronavirus that causes the illness we know as COVID-19. 


COVID-19 has a nearly identical genetic form as a virus present in some bats. Scientists have used this as evidence to believe that the virus is the same as the one now present in people. This is called zoonotic spillover, when a pathogen is transmitted from an animal to a human. Zoonotic spillover happens with a select number of diseases. Salmonella is a prime example of a zoonotic illness. These types of diseases usually occur through the transmission of the animal’s blood, excrement, saliva, or its meat. The CDC has determined that there is no significant evidence that household animals, including dogs and cats, can contract the disease. None of these types of animals in the United States have gotten the sickness, but a tiger from New York City, after showing symptoms of a respiratory illness, tested positive. The tiger was exposed to an employee who was actively spreading the virus, although the worker may not have shown symptoms right away.


Despite the great advancements in science, no cures or vaccines have been reported for any human coronavirus, reports the CDC. Fortunately, there are a few treatments, such as analgesics, to relieve pain and ease symptoms. After Chinese scientists shared the genetic sequence of COVID-19 to the rest of the world, several universities and pharmaceutical companies began work on vaccines. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases stated that a vaccine will not be available for the next year to year and a half. With that being said, many people may think that quarantine and restrictions will last for a much longer period of time. According to data regarding various other nations, this is not definite and is actually quite unlikely. The number of cases in China, Australia, South Korea, South Africa, and various other nations has seen flattened curves, along with a decline, in the number of COVID-19 cases over the past few days. This should give some of us hope, as China is the most populated country in the world with over one billion people and a greater population density than the United States. This data illustrates that countries, even the ones expected to be hurt the worst, can recover. Eventually, we will recover too.