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April 03, 2020 Friday 10:09:17 AM IST

Covid-19 -Tracing the Route Map of the Clever Spiky Protein

Image by Pete Linforth for


The Kerala Model of Public Health that was effective in containing the Nipah virus and now the Covid-19 followed a Route Map tracing procedure to identify and isolate potential people affected by the virus. Once a patient was identified, the most important step apart from isolating him or her was 'contact tracing'-finding out where this person had visited recently and who all were likely to be there in those times. Publishing the ‘route map’ enables citizens to inform the health authorities whether they were in any of the contact points mentioned in it and require quarantine or isolation.
Something similar is being done by the scientists at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to understand how viruses may inroads in our body cells.
Andre Hoelz, Professor of Chemistry at Caltech who has never worked on Coronavirus before is trying to understand what it does once Covid-19 enters our body. Viruses can't survive on their own and they need a host cell to accomplish many of their functions.
It is the spiky proteins (ORF 6) of Covid-19 enables it to enter our cells and target the Nuclear Pore Complex (NPC).  Nucleus (the brain of a cell) copies instructions of the genetic material held in RNA to cytoplasm, the main chamber of the cell. This is vital for the manufacture of a given protein needed for the cell. "When viruses interact with a host cell, they want to get an advantage any way they can. A lot of viruses do this by targeting the nuclear pore complex. They will destroy it, they will take it apart, they will modify it," according to Hoelz.
By blocking the NPC, viruses prevent the nucleus from exporting RNA strands. That is good for the virus, as it is provided with nearly unfettered access to the cell's machinery to manufacture its own proteins. Hoelz likens it to an automobile factory.
"If you have a factory that can make cars and SUVs on the same assembly line, but you want to make more SUVs, you stop making the cars," he says. "The virus has the instructions to make its own parts like tires, body, engine—all the things you need to build an SUV—plus this ability to stop the original cars from being made."
In simple terms, the spiky protein of Covid-19 gets hold of the core genetic material in the cell present as a protein (RNA or Ribonucleic acid). It may also be akin to a hacker entering into our computer network and taking control by seizing the source codes. Virology may sound interesting when presented this way. But it is not so easy to separate the structures on work on them.
For better understanding of how ORF6 proteins cause harm to NPC of our cells, Hoelz was directed by the Covid-19 initiative in US to manufacture both ORF6 and the parts of the NPC it targets in a lab. This will enable them to find out precisely how ORF6 inactivates NPC.
Hoelz believes the spiky virus is indeed unbelievably clever because it deactivates an alarm system making it difficult for other cells to know that they are the next target for attack. Similar ORF6 proteins were also found in coronaviruses that cause common cold, SARS and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
Origin the name Corona
Corona gets its name from Latin word 'corona' meaning a crown.  Using electron microscope the structure of virus was already identified and hence the images of a round virus with 'spikes' becoming its mascot. The large spikes on its surface gives the appearance of a crown. It is these spikes that help them get inside our cells. Some scientists are working on treatments based on anti-bodies found in patients who were cured of CoronaVirus infection.  This may provide a blue print for a vaccine or therapy to prevent future outbreaks. 
Closure of Wet Markets
The closure of wet markets that sell illegally poached wild animals in countries like China are vital to prevent future outbreaks of viruses. There are conflicting news reports about reopening of such markets in China and government taking measures to close down such markets. Prevention is better than cure, always.


Sreekumar Raghavan

Sreekumar Raghavan is an award-winning business journalist with over two and a half decades of experience in print, magazine and online journalism. A Google-certified Digital Marketing Professional, he specialises in content development for web, digital marketing and training, media relations and related areas. He is the recipient of MP Narayana Pillai Award for Journalism in 2001 and holds a bachelors degree in Economics and Masters Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Kerala University.





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