Virology, transmission, and pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2

Authors: Muge Cevik, clinical lecturer2,  Krutika Kuppalli, assistant professor3,  Jason Kindrachuk, assistant professor of virology4,  Malik Peiris, professor of virology5

What you need to know

  • SARS-CoV-2 is genetically similar to SARS-CoV-1, but characteristics of SARS-CoV-2—eg, structural differences in its surface proteins and viral load kinetics—may help explain its enhanced rate of transmission
  • In the respiratory tract, peak SARS-CoV-2 load is observed at the time of symptom onset or in the first week of illness, with subsequent decline thereafter, indicating the highest infectiousness potential just before or within the first five days of symptom onset
  • Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests can detect viral SARS-CoV-2 RNA in the upper respiratory tract for a mean of 17 days; however, detection of viral RNA does not necessarily equate to infectiousness, and viral culture from PCR positive upper respiratory tract samples has been rarely positive beyond nine days of illness
  • Symptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission (1-2 days before symptom onset), is likely to play a greater role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 than asymptomatic transmission
  • A wide range of virus-neutralizing antibodies have been reported, and emerging evidence suggests that these may correlate with severity of illness but wane over time.

Since the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in December 2019, there has been an unparalleled global effort to characterize the virus and the clinical course of disease. Coronavirus disease 2019 (covid-19), caused by SARS-CoV-2, follows a biphasic pattern of illness that likely results from the combination of an early viral response phase and an inflammatory second phase. Most clinical presentations are mild, and the typical pattern of covid-19 more resembles an influenza-like illness—which includes fever, cough, malaise, myalgia, headache, and taste and smell disturbance—rather than severe pneumonia (although emerging evidence about long term consequences is yet to be understood in detail).1 In this review, we provide a broad update on the emerging understanding of SARS-CoV-2 pathophysiology, including virology, transmission dynamics, and the immune response to the virus. Any of the mechanisms and assumptions discussed in the article and in our understanding of covid-19 may be revised as further evidence emerges.

For More Information: https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m3862

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