Illustration: Brandon Stelter

As you might guess from its name, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 — SARS-CoV-2 for short — is a sequel of sorts to the pathogen that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak, sticking to a similar genetic script. Hard to believe the world could be brought to its knees by something so minuscule that 10,000 of these microscopic marauders could fit comfortably in the period at the end of this sentence. Like any virus, this spitball of protein-encased nucleic acid exists in a zombielike state, not quite dead, yet not really alive. 

What really stands out about SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to spread rapidly.

Steven Gordon, MD

To make more of itself, it needs a host — which, unfortunately, is where humans come in. Its telltale spikes (a hallmark of the coronavirus family) come in handy for infiltrating the thin tissue that lines the nose, throat and lungs. This causes COVID-19, a disease whose symptoms often include coughing, fever and shortness of breath. Stealth makes the enemy particularly formidable: It can lie low for days in a presymptomatic carrier who can unwittingly infect others. “What really stands out about SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to spread rapidly,” says Steven Gordon, MD, Chair of the Department of Infectious Disease at Cleveland Clinic. “No one has preexisting immunity, which is a big setup for transmission among humans.” First detected in China in late 2019, the virus strain quickly made its way around the globe. As of late July 2020, more than 14 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been reported to the World Health Organization, including more than 600,000 deaths (view the latest pandemic statistics here).