Auburn biological sciences professor provides update on COVID-19 research

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Joanna Sztuba-Solinska, assistant professor of biological sciences in Auburn University’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, gives an update on her research of SARS CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—talks about how warming temperatures can affect the pandemic and what the future of the coronavirus may look like for everyone.

Have you noticed warmer temperatures having any effect yet on SARS CoV-2?

Current data suggest that the novel coronavirus may be transmitted less efficiently in higher temperatures and humidity, but the studies are not conclusive because of poor data quality, confounding factors and the relatively short existence of the pandemic, which makes it difficult to determine its true course. What is currently “flattening the curve” is the social distancing measures that most countries have imposed.

How likely is it that we will see additional waves of COVID-19 outbreaks in the winter and next year?

Very likely, as this virus is here to stay, just like many other coronaviruses that cause common colds that most of us have been exposed to. The only phenomenon that could protect us from COVID-19 is herd immunity. It is observed when most of the population is immune to an infectious disease. This provides indirect protection, or herd to those who are not immune to the disease. Again, there is no clear data that that’s actually what is happening.

What's the latest in the scientific community's work toward a possible vaccine?

Currently, numerous endeavors have been taken to develop a vaccine against SARS CoV-2. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Moderna are working on an mRNA-based vaccine. Novavax develops nanoparticle-based vaccine, and other biotech companies are working on subunit vaccines that include parts of SARS CoV-2 or recombinant proteins. Also, various types of tests are being developed, alongside widely used real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT qPCR). We also have serological tests that detect anti-SARS-CoV-1 immunoglobulin antibodies.

Are any mutations starting to occur with the virus? If so, what does this mean for our battle against the virus?

Viruses mutate all the time, that’s a fact, and nothing is going to stop that process. RNA viruses - and coronaviruses belong to that group - are particularly prone to mutations. However, a SARS CoV-2 enzyme that replicates the virus has a rare ability to correct its mistakes, that’s why SARS CoV-2 does not accumulate as many mutations as we would expect. As a matter of fact, the differences that scientists observe between SARS CoV-2 strain isolated from the USA and the initial isolates from Wuhan is approximately 16 nucleotide changes (also referred to as mutations), and the whole RNA genome is more than 30,000 nucleotides long. Nucleotides are the building block of the SARS CoV-2 genome. Most of these changes/mutations are silent, which means they do absolutely nothing to the virus its virulence (ability to cause the disease) or transmission. There are few instances of SARS CoV-2 isolates from Singapore that were shown to carry a large deletion within one of the important viral genes, and that appears to reduce the viral fitness in cell culture. Whether that deletion will reduce the virulence of the virus in humans is unknown.

Can you tell us about any research plans you have to learn more about COVID-19?

I have started three projects that may tackle different molecular aspects related to coronaviruses. My collaboration with Byron Cheatham (CytoViva) aims at using their novel microscopy technology for diagnostic purposes. Another collaboration with researchers from the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering focuses on using antiviral materials for protective face masks. Last, but not least, is my collaboration with researchers from the German Center of Infectious Research and the University of Vienna to study the conserved RNA structural motifs within coronaviruses genomes for their potential drug targeting.

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