By now every child knows about COVID-19 is something that stops them from enjoying school time, but what is it? Why are bats immune? And what is a vaccine?
Sunday morning—Professor Tung Tang was at his laptop.
A large chicken sandwich lay on a plate beside him. He took an occasional bite while he searched for details about the vaccine trials on the coronavirus across the world.
He heard footsteps at his door, and Hanuman and Kiran walked in. They were not their usual naughty selves. The spring in their steps was missing.
Sad faces, shoulders drooping, Hanuman sat down on the floor and immediately turned on his tummy. Kiran slumped on the sofa.
“What’s the matter? Both of you look so sad?” the affectionate Professor asked.
“Oh Professor, when will the school reopen? It’s been months since we have played with our friends,” Kiran said, slouching on the sofa with a bored look.
“Let me give you some sandwiches, may be it will cheer you up,” suggested the Professor and went into to the kitchen.
“This coronavirus is very naughty. I want to beat it up,” Hanuman sat up energised at the suggestion of sandwiches.
“Oh, that? All my scientist friends from across the world are trying to beat it up, just like you want to, dear. They are trying to invent a vaccine that will keep corona at bay and not infect humans,” the professor said.
“I hope you guys know what viruses are,” Professor raised his voice from the kitchen.
“Yes, the stuff that makes us catch cold and fever,” Kiran joined to help him make the sandwiches, stepping into the kitchen.
“Yes and a lot of other diseases – chicken pox, measles, chikungunya…. They are tiny organisms that enter our bodies, because in our bodies, they find their own survival, but cause these diseases,” Professor Tung Tang said, turning off the electric sandwich maker.
“And what about diarrhoea? Is it like diarrhoea?” asked Hanuman, who had perpetual fear of that malaise, since he often caught it.
“No, the diarrhoea is caused by a bacteria, which is a living organism. Viruses are more of a magic – sometimes living, sometimes non-living,” professor said with a twinkle in his eye.
“Is it?” Hanuman sat up now. He was clearly interested.
Virus: The Meaning
“One way of putting this intriguing fact is that depending on its environment, a virus is either dead or alive, unlike a bacteria,” Professor Tung Tang said.
“Once a virus finds a host living being, it comes to ‘life’ and replicates very fast, spreading across the host’s body. This is what happens with the coronavirus.”
“But schools do not close when we have such diseases like malaria or chikungunya. Why did they close now? After all, they are all viruses!” Kiran protested.
“Right—the reasons for this is that, when coronavirus infected us humans for the first time, we did not have much information about it— where it came from, how it spreads, what we can do to prevent it, and things like that.
“At the same time, it was spreading very fast from country to country and killing people. Unlike the case with other viruses, we did not know much about its behaviour and hence, could not control its naughtiness,” Professor elaborated.
He tidied up the kitchen, while Kiran carried the sandwiches to his rather messy living room, overflowing with all his favourite musical instruments.
“We did not know about this virus? Then how did it come to us?” asked Kiran, finishing her last bite and slouching back on the sofa.
Though this type of coronavirus have been living in bats for centuries, they did not kill the bats, but when it infected us, it killed us. That is because bats have a large army of soldiers called interferons that trigger a huge immune response
“Well, the COVID 19 shows similarities to coronavirus that has been residing in bats for a long time, showing possibilities that they crossed over from these mammals to us human beings.
But if the bats had coronavirus living inside them, why didn’t they die?” Kiran asked after a thoughtful gap.
“The strange thing is that they had been hosted by bats, but the bats were never affected by them.
“However, when they crossed to humans, people either became seriously ill or even died,” Professor Tung Tang said, sipping his coffee.
“Any why so? What do bats have that humans do not?” Hanuman asked, still lying down on his belly on the floor.
“Well that is because, bats have a stronger and more alert army guarding their bodies from diseases.
“That army consists of signaling soldiers or molecules called interferons, and bats rapidly produce a larger number of them to trigger immunity that prevents the virus from thriving,” the Professor proffered, not entirely certain if the kids had got the meaning.
Interferons… that’s a funny word, thought Hanuman and giggled, twice pronouncing ‘iterferons… interferons’.
The Professor realised Hanuman was desiring to know more. Small children often do not ask direct questions, but this giggling showed Hanuman was curious, so Professor Tung Tang continued.
“Interferons are a group of proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of several viruses. It alerts the host cells about the presence of a foreign infection and signals defensive operations to begin,” Professor tried to quench the hungry mind.
“So what is the treatment?” Kiran asked, sitting back worried. “When will our bodies start producing large amounts of interferons to protect us? And when will we be able to go to school?”
“That is the point. That is why my scientist friends are trying to find a vaccine. A vaccine is a biological defence created in a laboratory.
“How it functions is, it contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism. It is not exactly that organism, but part of it or similar to it.
“It is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe, its toxins, or one of its surface proteins.
“The agent stimulates the body’s immune system, which functions much like your house guard. The guard is able to recognise the agent, say the thief trying to enter your house and burgle it.
“Once you have the vaccine for a particular disease, the vaccine agent – or the guard ‑alerts and heightens all your immune agents, who catch the thief and destroy it,” Professor explained to the eager duo.
Interesting, thought Hanuman. Something like our ‘chor-police’ games.
But that same thought also took him back to a sheer longing for the school to reopen. He hoped and wished for the defence against the virus, so that he could go back to his school and his games.
“Please ask your friends to find the vaccine fast, Professor,” he said.
Illustration: Sid Ghosh
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Archita specialises in science communication, and in this series she has created for children, she uses three fictional characters, Hanuman, a bit of an imp, his elder sister Kiran and Professor Tung Tang, a scientist who meddles in musical instruments.