Types of human coronaviruses and the symptoms they cause
What are coronaviruses?
- Coronaviruses are a large family of single-stranded RNA viruses that cause diseases in animals and humans.
- In humans, the viruses usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses such as the common cold.
- In the last two decades, more aggressive coronaviruses have emerged that are capable of causing serious illness and even death in humans.
- These include SARS-CoV, MERS and now SARS-CoV-2.
- Human coronaviruses were first characterised in the mid-1960s and they are mostly considered to be responsible for causing upper respiratory tract infections in children.
- In 1965, scientists DJ Tyrrell and ML Bynoe were the first ones to identify a human coronavirus, which they isolated from the nasal washing of a male child who had symptoms of common cold.
- They termed the strain B814 and later in 1968 the term “coronavirus” was accepted.
- These viruses are named so because of spikes found on their surface that give them the appearance of a crown when looked through an electron microscope.
- In animals, coronaviruses can cause diarrhea in cows and pigs and upper respiratory tract disease in chickens.
- The first coronavirus was isolated in 1937 and it was the infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) that caused respiratory disease in chickens.
- Broadly, coronaviruses (CoV) are the largest group of viruses that belong to the Nidovirales order, which includes Coronaviridae among three others.
- Coronavirinae are one of the two subfamilies of Coronaviridea, with the other being Torovirinae.
- Coronavirinae can be further subdivided into alpha, beta, gamma and delta coronaviruses.
- While there are hundreds of coronaviruses, there are seven that we know can infect humans.
- Out of the seven, two are alpha coronaviruses (229E and NL63) and four are beta coronaviruses (OC43, HKU1, MERS and SARS-CoV).
- The classification of the viruses is based on their phylogeny, which is to say it reflects how these virus strains evolved from their common ancestors.
- Around the world, people commonly get infected by 229E, HKU1, NL63 and OC43.
- Sometimes, coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and become a human coronavirus, which include MERS, SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2.
When the human coronaviruses were first identified
- 229E: One of the first coronaviruses strains to be described in the mid-60s, possibly by D Hamre and JJ Procknow in 1966.
- OC43: Discovered in 1967 according to the Journal of Virology. However, a paper in Virology Journal has described it as the first human coronavirus to be discovered in 1965, citing a 1966 paper written by Tyrrell and Bynoe who worked with the nasal swab titled B814.
- NL63 and HKU1: First identified in the Netherlands in 2004, probably after it was isolated from a seven-month-old infant showing respiratory symptoms. During this time, there was an increase in research on human coronaviruses, which led to the discovery of NL63 and HKU1 in Hong Kong in early 2005.
- SARS-CoV: 2003 in China (animal source not yet known, bats thought to have given it to other animals, probably civet cats)
- MERS: 2012 in Saudi Arabia (transmitted by dromedary camels)
- SARS-CoV-2: 2019 in Wuhan (source not yet known, possibly bats)
What are the symptoms they cause?
- Before SARS-CoV-2 and MERS, SARS-CoV was the first example of a human coronavirus that could cause serious illness in humans in the form of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Other human coronaviruses such as OC43 and 229E are known to cause the common cold, whereas NL63 is associated with serious respiratory symptoms such as upper respiratory tract infection and pneumonia.