Pavel Volchkov heads the Genome Engineering Lab at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), that has several key projects, all of them involving genome editing mediated by the CRISPR/Cas technology. Discovered just a few years ago, CRISPR/Cas has emerged as one of the hottest scientific trends.

“The name of the coronavirus has to do with its distinctive crownlike shape, which you can observe with an electron microscope. [“Corona” is the Latin for “crown.”] Although sequencing reveals that the virus is closely related to a particular family, and there is a trend in virusology to abandon morphology-based names, we still use the old terminology.

The novel 2019 coronavirus — or nCorona-2019 — is very similar to the other coronaviruses. It is particularly closely related to the SARS virus, which was behind the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in China, as well as to the Middle East respiratory syndrome, MERS.

The genome of nCorona-2019 is encoded in RNA and is notably larger than that of is peers, enabling the virus to carry not just the necessary genes but supplementary ones as well. This allows the disease to hijack a host cell, reprogram it, and even disrupt the alarm signal alerting the immune system. Since its genome is contained in an RNA molecule, the coronavirus can mutate rapidly to adapt to new conditions. That includes evading the immune response. Unlike its DNA-based cousins, the RNA virus can also quickly synthesize the proteins it needs.

A virus normally does not seek to kill its host. On the contrary, it is favorable for the virus to reproduce and use the host for as long as possible. However, besides endowing it with the ability to infect humans, the combination of mutations acquired by nCorona-2019 has made it highly immunogenic. This does not necessarily end well for the host, because the side effects of a runaway immune system might prove lethal. Evidently, that can happen with the new coronavirus. Patients may get complications in the form of pneumonia. It is the response of the immune system to a respiratory infection, sometimes leading to lung failure and possibly death.

Confirmed patients are treated by a well-timed suppression of the inflammatory processes, until the immune system can cope with the infection. The outbreak in China has to do with the extremely high population density in the central parts of the country and the climate that is favorable for such viruses. An added factor is China’s traditional cuisine, which originated in the tough times when most of the population had to abide by the rule of “If it moves, eat it. If not, wiggle it.” Preliminary data suggest that the new coronavirus might have been passed to humans from snakes, which are a traditional treat in the region. This is not yet confirmed, though.

As of now, quarantine isolation is the main measure for preventing the spread of the disease. The Chinese government has shut down local passenger transportation in the affected regions. However, the virus has escaped China, and public health watchdogs around the world are monitoring the situation at state borders. Rospotrebnadzor [the agency responsible for the countermeasures in Russia] has taken the necessary steps. Namely, rapidly identifying and localizing the virus carriers. The situation calls for attention to everyone closely contacting the infected individuals, because the incubation period can last several days or more. All incoming passengers from China and other Asian countries therefore need to register and disclose their whereabouts to Rospotrebnadzor for the duration of the nCorona-2019 incubation period.”