"Coronaviruses" by CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy / Public Domain

Profile of a killer: the complex biology powering the coronavirus pandemic

May 4, 2020

By David Cyranoski

In 1912, German veterinarians puzzled over the case of a feverish cat with an enormously swollen belly. That is now thought to be the first reported example of the debilitating power of a coronavirus. Veterinarians didn’t know it at the time, but coronaviruses were also giving chickens bronchitis, and pigs an intestinal disease that killed almost every piglet under two weeks old.

The link between these pathogens remained hidden until the 1960s, when researchers in the United Kingdom and the United States isolated two viruses with crown-like structures causing common colds in humans. Scientists soon noticed that the viruses identified in sick animals had the same bristly structure, studded with spiky protein protrusions. Under electron microscopes, these viruses resembled the solar corona, which led researchers in 1968 to coin the term coronaviruses for the entire group.

It was a family of dynamic killers: dog coronaviruses could harm cats, the cat coronavirus could ravage pig intestines. Researchers thought that coronaviruses caused only mild symptoms in humans, until the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 revealed how easily these versatile viruses could kill people.

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