Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds. In humans, coronaviruses cause respiratory tract infections that are typically mild, such as the common cold, though rarer forms such as SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 can be lethal. Symptoms vary in other species: in chickens, they cause an upper respiratory tract disease, while in cows and pigs they cause diarrhea. There are yet to be vaccines or antiviral drugs to prevent or treat human coronavirus infections.
Coronaviruses comprise the subfamily Orthocoronavirinae, in the family Coronaviridae, order Nidovirales, and realm Riboviria. They are enveloped viruses with a positive-sense single-stranded RNA genome and a nucleocapsid of helical symmetry. The genome size of coronaviruses ranges from approximately 27 to 34 kilobases, the largest among known RNA viruses. The name coronavirus is derived from the Latin corona, meaning “crown” or “halo”, which refers to the characteristic appearance reminiscent of a crown or a solar corona around the virions (virus particles) when viewed under two-dimensional transmission electron microscopy, due to the surface covering in club-shaped protein spikes.
Coronaviruses were first discovered in the 1960s. The earliest ones discovered were infectious bronchitis virus in chickens and two viruses from the nasal cavities of human patients with the common cold that were subsequently named human coronavirus 229E and human coronavirus OC43. Other members of this family have since been identified, including SARS-CoV in 2003, HCoV NL63 in 2004, HKU1 in 2005, MERS-CoV in 2012, and SARS-CoV-2 (formerly known as 2019-nCoV) in 2019. Most of these have involved serious respiratory tract infections.
Name and morphology
The name “coronavirus” is derived from the Latin corona and the Greek κορώνη (korṓnē, “garland, wreath”), meaning crown or halo. The name refers to the characteristic appearance of virions (the infective form of the virus) by electron microscopy, which have a fringe of large, bulbous surface projections creating an image reminiscent of a crown or of a solar corona. This morphology is created by the viral spike (S) peplomers, which are proteins on the surface of the virus that determine host tropism.
Proteins that contribute to the overall structure of all coronaviruses are the spike (S), envelope (E), membrane (M), and nucleocapsid (N). In the specific case of the SARS coronavirus a defined receptor-binding domain on S mediates the attachment of the virus to its cellular receptor, angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). Some coronaviruses (specifically the members of Betacoronavirus subgroup A) also have a shorter spike-like protein called hemagglutinin esterase (HE).