Lives across the U.S. and the entire world have been affected by the spread of coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19. An assistant professor of biology at Millersville University, Dr. Eric Ryndock, has been studying viruses since his undergraduate days at Millersville. A 2007 MU biology graduate Ryndock says he became interested in viruses after taking courses in microbiology, medical microbiology, immunology and virology. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Penn State University College of Medicine.
- What is SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19?
SARS-CoV-2 stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. It is the virus that causes COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease of 2019.
- What is a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses containing RNA as their genetic material (human cells contain DNA). As a group, they can infect animals and humans, but typically specific coronaviruses are restricted to certain hosts. In humans they cause mild to severe respiratory infections. Their name is derived from “corona,” the Latin word for crown, which the outside structure of the virus resembles.
- Is SARS-CoV-2 the only coronavirus that infects humans?
Prior to SARS-CoV-2 there were six coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these viruses cause cold-like symptoms and are not a large public health problem. The other two resulted in smaller outbreaks with more severe disease, even death (SARS-CoV from 2002-2004 and MERS-CoV during 2012, 2015, and 2018).
- Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from?
Scientists can perform genetic tests on viruses to see how related they are just like you can do for humans. The RNA sequence from SARS-CoV-2 matched with >90% similarity to a coronavirus that infects bats. Another small piece matches part of a coronavirus that was found in another animal called a pangolin. All evidence shows this virus originated naturally and was not created in a lab.
- How did the pandemic start?
Data suggests that the initial infection occurred in Wuhan, China in late 2019. Early reports suggested that an interaction between humans and infected animals at a local food market, where live animals are commonly sold, served as the epicenter of the pandemic, however later reports suggest there may have been earlier infections prior to the event at the market. Either way, in early January, it was reported that there were 1,000 confirmed cases in Wuhan. Due to the abundance of global travel, it took less than 6 months for most of the entire world to see infections in their own populations.
- What does “flatten the curve” mean?
“Flatten the curve” refers to the goal of social distancing. Left unchecked, the pandemic would create a large spike in infected individuals, most certainly overwhelming our healthcare system, leading to an increase in death. By maintaining current social distancing guidelines, we reduce the total infections that occur and spread it out over time (flattening the curve), so no large spike of infected individuals occurs. This does not stop the pandemic, but it does allow our healthcare system to care for those efficiently and provides scientists the time to create anti-viral drugs and vaccines to aid healthcare workers in the treatment of future infections.
- What are the symptoms of COVID-19 and what is the risk if I become infected?
Individuals experience symptoms 2-14 days after viral infection. The primary two symptoms are coughing and shortness of breath, but you may also experience fever, chills, muscle ache, headache, loss of taste or smell, and some gastrointestinal issues. Most individuals who are below 60 years old have a low risk of mortality if infected. However, your risk of mortality increases if you have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, respiratory disease, cancer, immune system dysfunction, or cardiovascular disease.
- I keep hearing about how we are testing for people who are infected, how do these tests work?
There are two main types of tests. One test involves swabbing the area where the virus infects you (the respiratory tract) and detects the viral RNA, the genetic material of the virus. You will expect viral RNA to be present if you have an active infection or have recently been infected. This test is helpful because it tells us who is currently infected with the virus. The second type of test does not test for parts of the virus, but instead, looks for the presence of antibodies in your blood. These antibodies are generated by your immune system during an infection. This test is helpful because it identifies who has been exposed to the virus. Long after the virus is eliminated from your body, those antibodies will remain.
- I read somewhere that you can be re-infected by SARS-CoV-2, is that true?
There were two reports, one from China, and the other from South Korea, which reported ~10% of individuals who had previously recovered from COVID-19, were infected again. Now, infectious disease experts in South Korea have reported that these tests were false positives, a test that yields a positive result, but in reality, is negative. The conclusion was that viral RNA is still present inside cells within your respiratory system, even though the virus is inactive and is no longer infectious. This RNA may be present for several months after the infection is resolved and can still yield a positive result on the test. At this time, there is no evidence that you can be re-infected by SARS-CoV-2 once you have recovered.
- When will a vaccine be developed to protect against SARS-CoV-2?
Historically, vaccines have taken multiple years to produce. Now, with an ever-changing landscape of tools in molecular biology, we have reduced the time to create a vaccine. Though, a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 would not be expected to reach the masses until at least 2021. The hope is that until then, scientists and medical professionals can work together to create treatments for COVID-19 that reduce patient mortality.
In Spring 2021 Ryndock will be teaching a reoccurring course in virology and he expects that the pandemic will come up a few times in lecture.