Auburn biological sciences professor explains complexities of SARS CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 disease

Published: March 24, 2020
Updated: April 04, 2020
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Joanna Sztuba-Solinska, assistant professor of biological sciences in Auburn University’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, offers the below information about the complexities of SARS CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19. She discusses what makes the virus different—including its capability to proofread its mistakes—and why there are unknowns about a potential vaccine and how COVID-19 infections might fare as temperatures warm in the U.S.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a disease caused by SARS CoV-2. And it’s important to remember that because often times media actually mistakenly call the virus COVID-19. COVID-19 is a disease. I could kind of compare that to another virus HIV that causes AIDS. We can’t say that AIDS causes a disease. AIDS is a disease. While the virus that causes it or agent that causes it is HIV. Similar to here, SARS CoV-2 is the virus. COVID-19 is the disease.

How does this virus compare to others you have researched?

So, this virus is dramatically different as compared to the viruses that I currently study. I study herpes viruses; I study Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus. This is a DNA virus, and SARS CoV-2 is an RNA virus. What DNA and RNA stand for—these are two different types of nucleic acids. DNA viruses mutate or evolve at a much, much slower pace than RNA viruses. SARS CoV-2 is an RNA virus. It mutates quite frequently. It also has this unique capacity of proofreading its mistakes—which you usually don’t see with RNA viruses. But because it’s an RNA virus it has more so to speak evolutionary flexibility to go from animal reservoir to unfortunately human reservoir.

How optimistic are you that a vaccine will be developed sometime this year to protect us against COVID-19?

The process of developing and testing vaccines takes usually 18 months to two years. What we are now asking the scientific community is to come up with a quick solution now, but it must be quick and effective. It doesn’t quite work like that. We need to make sure that the vaccine is actually not causing some side effects—like, for example, overstimulation of the immune system, which would actually lead to disastrous consequences. So, the hope is that a vaccine will be further pushed towards being released to the public at the end of this year. But whether that happens depends on how successful it is in phase one, two and three trials and then whether we don’t see any side effects. So, we have to be cautious.

Are there any lessons from your past research involving other deadly viruses that could be applied to SARS CoV-2?

Don’t ignore viruses. They are pretty important. And another thing is that everybody should keep in mind that the fact that we have this outbreak doesn’t mean that other viruses stopped. So, you still might get the flu. So, please vaccinate against flu. That’s what I keep saying to my students. We (recently) observed another spike of influenza infection. If you get influenza and COVID-19, it is going to be disastrous for you. Please, please, please vaccinate.

How might the warmer temperatures of spring and summer affect COVID-19, and when might you expect that process to begin?

Well, that would be our hope. That’s what we see with influenza. It’s very seasonal. It ends around March or April, and then we don’t have to worry until the next strain hits. With this virus (SARS CoV-2), it’s actually not quite clear. The hope is that yes–higher temperatures, lower humidity, the UV light from the sun will hopefully limit the survival of these particles on surfaces, and chances of transmission. But we also observe quite a bit of infections in Africa, in Puerto Rico, Hawaii – other countries where temperatures are already warm…It's tough to say whether that’s what will happen. And it’s tough to also estimate how many of these cases observed in warm-temperature countries are import cases where people got sick somewhere else and they brought that to Africa or other places.

Media Contact

To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Preston Sparks, at pjs0027@auburn.edu.