‘It’s something I have never seen’: How the Covid-19 virus hijacks cells
A deep dive into how the new coronavirus infects cells has found that it orchestrates a hostile takeover of their genes unlike any other known viruses do, producing what one leading scientist calls “unique” and “aberrant” changes.
Recent studies show that in seizing control of genes in the human cells it invades, the virus changes how segments of DNA are read, doing so in a way that might explain why the elderly are more likely to die of Covid-19 and why antiviral drugs might not only save sick patients’ lives but also prevent severe disease if taken before infection.
“It’s something I have never seen in my 20 years of” studying viruses, said virologist Benjamin tenOever of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, referring to how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, hijacks cells’ genomes.
The “something” he and his colleagues saw is how SARS-CoV-2 blocks one virus-fighting set of genes but allows another set to launch, a pattern never seen with other viruses. Influenza and the original SARS virus (in the early 2000s), for instance, interfere with both arms of the body’s immune response — what tenOever dubs “call to arms” genes and “call for reinforcement” genes.