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The Double Helix COVID-19 explainer

By David, 20 March 2020 Update

An illustration of a coronavirus
Image: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

As part of the media coverage of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), we thought it was important to explain the situation for young readers. Here’s a chance to get your head around the biology from the basics.

What is a virus?

In many ways, viruses are weird. While they infect living things, viruses aren’t considered to be alive. That’s because viruses don’t breathe, or eat, or move themselves.

Viruses are so small they can’t even be seen with regular light microscopes, only at higher resolution with electron microscopes. They look a bit like a tiny bubble, filled with genetic material. That material can be a snippet of DNA, or a similar chemical called RNA. The bubble around the outside is specially shaped to break into living cells.

Cells are called the building blocks of life, because they’re the small – typically microscopic – structures that make up living things. They’re often compared to tiny factories, as they make important chemicals.

When a virus gets inside a cell, it takes over. The virus forces the cell to start making more of the virus. That virus can then spread to other cells, causing more infection and so on.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses. The virus that causes COVID-19 is not the only coronavirus – many colds are caused by coronaviruses, for example.

These coronaviruses get their name from their appearance. They look like they have a halo or ‘corona’ of spikes around them!

What does the virus that causes COVID-19 look like?


Click on the images below to enlarge


How do I help stop the spread?

The aim is to limit the spread of COVID-19 from person to person. If each patient infects more than one person, the outbreak will grow.

We need to reduce the number of people infected with COVID-19. Here are some things you can do:

• Follow instructions from government health departments.
• If you’re sick, stay away from other people as much as possible so you don’t pass it on.
• Use tissues to cover coughs and sneezes, then throw used tissues in the bin. If you don’t have a tissue handy, cough and sneeze into your elbow.
• Wash your hands often.
• Avoid touching your face.
• Stand at least 1.5 metres from other people.
• Avoid large groups.
• Wipe down surfaces with cleaning products regularly.

How do I know what to do?

There are a lot of people talking about COVID-19. Although everyone is trying to help, they might not know the whole picture.

In Australia, the federal government works with the state and territory governments to come up with a plan of action. You can look at the Australian Government’s Department of Health website for more information.

For trustworthy news of the outbreak, ABC News has good national coverage in Australia.

And for updates on CSIRO’s COVID-19 research, you can visit the CSIRO website.

Any questions?

If you’re a school-aged student, we’d love to hear your questions about COVID-19. While we can’t promise to answer every question directly, we’ll use your feedback to shape future Double Helix coverage of the topic. Send your emails to doublehelixextra@csiro.au and check our blog for our latest articles and activities.

If you’re after more science news for kids, subscribe to Double Helix magazine!

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