Essay: Scientific, etymological, and political musings on the coronavirus

This column is part of a series on the COVID-19 health crisis written by expert faculty and staff at UH Hilo.

Lincoln Gotshalk
Lincoln Gotshalk

By Lincoln Gotshalk, PhD
Professor of Kinesiology and Exercise Sciences
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

In 2014, I was contacted by the Global Health Security and Biodefense Directorate (by a researcher I had worked with on a project with at Temple University in 1976, the discovery year of the Ebola virus—thought to be a variant of Marburg virus and was a hot topic of discussion amongst us scientific types due to its “horrific magnificence”). I was one of a large number of scientists with knowledge of Ebola virus, making up a quickly-fashioned think tank, all asked to write an expose about the Zaire variant of Ebola virus. It is highly contagious and extremely vicious, killing most of who catch it as the body “kills itself” by the stimulation of a massive and indiscriminate autoimmune attack (“cytokine storm”, cyto = cells, kine = movement, the massive moving/signaling of immune cells, causing hemorrhagic shock and death).

Interestingly, later in 2014, a University of Hawai‘i at Hilo graduate (2003), an advisee who went on to earn his medical degree and was leading one of the first units of Doctors Without Borders into Guinea, urgently contacted me for my thoughts on transmission and safety factors concerning Ebola. After that, The Global Health Security and Biodefense Directorate was dismantled in 2018, and I haven’t heard much from my old colleagues and contacts. If the Directorate had remained in place, testing for COVID-19 might have been full force months ago, and vaccine research mechanisms would have been in place.


We have a “coronavirus” to thank for this pandemic (from the Greek: pan = across, or concerning all, and dḗmios = people; epidemic means from Greek: epi = on, near, or around, and dḗmios). Coronoviruses are a large family of enveloped viruses with “a single-stranded, linear, nonsegmented, positive-polarity RNA” (of course). We may see more new forms of coronaviruses as the Arctic permafrost releases its goodies over the next century as it melts. They get the name from corona, the emanation of light from the perimeter of the sun, and from which we get words like crown and coronation. Under microscopy, a coronavirus has halo of spikes around the envelope that reminds one of a corona.

Coronaviruses cause respiratory tract infections, resulting in what we call the common cold. The difference is that the most common cold virus that we call Rhinovirus replicates much better at 33°C (91.4°F) than 37°C (98.6°F), which is why they primarily affect the nose and conjunctiva than the lower respiratory tract, and the body doesn’t need to respond with a fever. COVID-19 reproduces at 37°C and higher, which is why a high fever is a very common response in order to stimulate pryophilic weapons of the immune system not needed for the common cold. This virus’s PRD (protein receptor domain, the locks on body cells that the virus’s key fits into) is found on cells of the respiratory tract.

Speaking of body temperature: why are bats so often the culprits in spillover dissemination? Bats have a high resting body temperature (e.g., 40.4°C, or 105 °F), which keeps such viruses, including Ebola and Coronoviruses, at bay in their systems.

Magnified COVID-19 virus with red protrusions throughout.
COVID-19. Its scientific name is SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

What are viruses?

What are viruses? They have nothing in common with bacteria. They are over a thousandfold smaller in size than bacteria (which, being prokaryote, have non-centralized DNA and organelles for metabolism and reproduction; viruses do not). Viruses are teeny, tiny particles that are not visible by anything but electron microscopy, and are “obligatory intracellular parasites”; they must get their energy from inside a pirated cell. A virus has no nucleus, and is not alive but more a robot. Nobel Prize winner in physiology Peter Medawar once epitomized a virus as “a piece of bad news wrapped in protein.” The “bad news” is RNA that stimulates replication, not so much reproduction (binary fission or mitosis, producing two cells from one), and one virus upon hijacking of the cell’s organelles for energy and metabolism, can replicate to produce hundreds/thousands of copies, or progeny viruses, bursting the cell. When it is said that “they live in the air for three hours” or “on clothing for three days,” what is meant is they retain their protein shape for that long before denaturing.

Naming of diseases

I’m not sure I would like to be named Alois Alzheimer, or James Parkinson. Naming a disease after a person, place, town, animal, is a terrible mistake. Thankfully, “Wuhan Virus” (after the geographic region in China) has been eliminated as a name (though China Virus has reared its ugly head). Find out what happened to the Corona Beer Company stocks as this virus reached front page news. If somehow reverse-engineered and Corona Beer was deemed an undeniable cure for the virus, the stocks would shoot through the roof, and all of us would be more than a bit tipsy. But with xenophobia as a predominant human trait, there already have been reports of negative incidents and attitudes perpetrated on people of Asian descent due to the Wuhan/China label. In the 1500s, Syphilis reared its ugly head, and the French called it the Italian Disease and in Italy, reciprocity ensued, as they called it the French Disease, and possibly more deaths occurred due to these names via skirmishes that ensued than from the disease itself.

The 1918 influenza pandemic was widely and incorrectly called the Spanish Flu, though it didn’t originate in Spain. It seemed to have reared its ugly head in, wait for it…Kansas! Ebola virus was named after the tributary of the Congo River (ironically really named Legbala River meaning “white water”) and microbiologist Peter Piot smartly made sure it was named after the river rather than the town, Yambuku, in which it was first identified. The rise of the name Swine flu (which is, in fact, endemic in pigs) resulted in a large drop in the pork market.

COVID-19 is named for corona-virus-December-2019, though another scientist said that the D is for disease. Its scientific name is SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

Washing hands

Words: Washing one's hands w is very effective in rendering a COVID-19 harmless.Why washing hands is so effective against COVID-19: common soap is a fatty acid of a salt, giving it the ability to emulsify (loosen up and dislodge) the fatty part of the lipoprotein membrane around the protective protein coat of a virus (the “viral envelope”), causing the protein to be denatured, or changed in shape from a key that can unlock a door to a cell, to a bent key that doesn’t fit into the lock any more. Outside of the cell, a virus is rather useless, but once it unlocks a door to the cell…

Washing one’s hands with soap and water is very effective in rendering a COVID-19 harmless.

Human behavior

There is an allegory that in the 1660s, on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the poor flightless bird the dodo was being beaten into human-induced extinction by randy Dutch sailors (the actual culprits may have been the rats brought along on the ships, but the dodo ceased to exist then and there). At the exact same time, Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek (inventor of the microscope) were discovering what Hooke called cellulae (cells, named after the small rooms monks lived in) and their workings, including the fertilization process requiring the sperm cell to enter the egg cell, putting an end to the previous theory of spontaneous generation, a remarkable example of our abilities for most powerful scientific and intellectual advancements.

This range and contrasts in human behaviors is startling. Being touched by angels of our better nature, or being influenced by demons of our lesser nature: during this pandemic, we see examples of each. Those who follow orders so as to sequester themselves and not hog supplies and so forth, and those who hog supplies, party in large numbers on beaches, and who claim that they can’t possibly have or transmit the disease. Worthy of contemplation.


Lincoln Gotshalk is a musculoskeletal physiologist, anatomist, and exercise physiologist with a strong background in muscular strength and power training and total body systemic response to exercise and stress. His current top interests are the physiological responses to acute and chronic stress; the physiological responses of women and men athletes to seasonal stress; musculoskeletal response to aging, and the slowing/prophylaxis of the diminishment of musculoskeletal performance due to aging.

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