Coronaviruses are a type of enveloped virus, that is, they are encased within a double-layered lipid (fatty) membrane. Non-enveloped viruses have a hard outer shell called a capsid. Enveloped viruses tend to be sensitive to heat, while capsid-coated viruses are not.
Coronaviruses get their name from their characteristic appearance. They are round rather than sharp or pointed, and have proteins projecting outward from their surface forming a halo around the spherical membrane, much like the corona surrounding the sun.
Most coronaviruses infect animals, and some of these have crossed over to infect people. There are seven unique coronaviruses identified so far that infect people, including SARS and MERS. The specific type of coronavirus causing the current global pandemic is SARS-CoV-2. This causes the disease known as COVID-19.
The New York Times wrote an article titled “How Coronavirus Hijacks Your Cells,” (updated March 13, 2020) which gives an excellent introduction to the structure of the virus and the mechanics involved in becoming infected. Slides from that article are included below.
A more complete and complex description of the virus and its treatment can be found in this journal article published on March 8, 2020.
The CDC recommends frequently washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds. According to this study, washing your hands with soap removes more microbes than washing your hands with just water. That seems obvious. But washing with soap is even more effective against the coronavirus because soap doesn’t just help rinse the virus away, it literally helps destroy the virus. Here’s a simple explanation, again from The New York Times of how soap breaks apart the coronavirus.