SARS-CoV-2 grows in type II lung cells, which secrete a soap-like substance that helps air slip deep into the lungs, and in cells lining the throat. As with SARS, most of the damage in COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, is caused by the immune system carrying out a scorched earth defense to stop the virus from spreading. Millions of cells from the immune system invade the infected lung tissue and cause massive amounts of damage in the process of cleaning out the virus and any infected cells.

Each COVID-19 lesion ranges from the size of a grape to the size of a grapefruit. The challenge for health care workers treating patients is to support the body and keep the blood oxygenated while the lung is repairing itself.

How SARS-CoV-2 infects, sickens and kills people

SARS-CoV-2 has a sliding scale of severity. Patients under age 10 seem to clear the virus easily, most people under 40 seem to bounce back quickly, but older people suffer from increasingly severe COVID-19. The ACE2 protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses as a door to enter cells is also important for regulating blood pressure, and it does not do its job when the virus gets there first. This is one reason COVID-19 is more severe in people with high blood pressure.

SARS-CoV-2 is more severe than seasonal influenza in part because it has many more ways to stop cells from calling out to the immune system for help. For example, one way that cells try to respond to infection is by making interferon, the alarm signaling protein. SARS-CoV-2 blocks this by a combination of camouflage, snipping off protein markers from the cell that serve as distress beacons and finally shredding any anti-viral instructions that the cell makes before they can be used. As a result, COVID-19 can fester for a month, causing a little damage each day, while most people get over a case of the flu in less than a week.

At present, the transmission rate of SARS-CoV-2 is a little higher than that of the pandemic 2009 H1N1 influenza virus, but SARS-CoV-2 is at least 10 times as deadly. From the data that is available now, COVID-19 seems a lot like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), though it’s less likely than SARS to be severe.