Coronavirus: Warnings went unheeded, Ohio State virologist says

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Coronavirus people, as Linda Saif sometimes describes herself and other scientists who study the now-infamous family of pathogens, have long known the possibilities.

Coronaviruses spill over from animals to humans. They’ve managed to do this, repeatedly, for hundreds of years. But their tricks haven’t drawn enough widespread attention and concern.

“Every time I gave a talk, I said there’s a potential. I think all the others did, too,” said Saif, an Ohio State University virologist, immunologist and internationally known expert on coronaviruses. “This message was pretty much unheeded.”

Despite evidence of the danger posed by coronaviruses — they also caused outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) — much of the funding for pandemic research has been aimed at preparation for global influenza, Saif and others say.

Support for coronavirus studies waxed and waned.

“Influenza was thought to be the next major, catastrophic pandemic,” Saif said, with interest in coronavirus research peaking after the SARS outbreak of 2003. Those infections sickened about 8,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 800, but the virus never took hold in the United States.

The new virus, causing a disease called COVID-19, has a far more widespread and deadly reach. Reported infections have surged past 700,000 and about 33,000 people have died so far, putting coronavirus sleuthing in the spotlight as never before.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the health and science publication STAT last month, before cases had exploded in the United States, that scientific interest will be sustained.

It’s clear, Fauci said, “that coronaviruses can do really interesting things.”

Saif has been peering at them under her electron microscope for 40 years. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and a co-director for the Viruses and Emerging Pathogens program at Ohio State, Saif has made the study of coronaviruses her life’s work.

“We have had major epidemics in animals before,” she said, citing one about six years ago that wiped out millions of pigs. “It’s not just that they’re occurring in humans.”

Four types of human coronaviruses are common and generally cause only mild upper-respiratory infections and colds. The tiny print on cans of Lysol, for example, have long listed human coronaviruses among the illness-causing viruses and bacteria we can wipe out with a spray of disinfectant.

The coronaviruses responsible for SARS, MERS and the new COVID-19 are different. They are rooted in zoonotic, or animal-to-human, transmission.

“People don’t have immunity,” Saif said of the coronavirus now rampaging around the globe. “It’s brand new.”

Bats are the likely reservoirs for those viruses, which moved to different intermediate mammalian hosts and then on to people, Saif said. For SARS, it was civet cats sold in Chinese animal markets, and with MERS, camels.

A type of anteater, the pangolin, was the initial suspect for SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19), but researchers now doubt that link.

“This particular pathogen is sort of a perfect virus,” said Tracey Goldstein, a professor in the Department of Pathology, Immunology and Microbiology at the University of California-Davis.

“They don’t want to burn themselves out,” she said. “When you think about it from the virus side, Ebola is not very smart. It kills the host.”

Goldstein also serves as a principal investigator for Predict, a project of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Emerging Pandemic Threats program. Predict started about a decade ago to bolster detection of zoonotic viruses that have pandemic potential, including coronaviruses, influenza and ebolaviruses.

“There was human surveillance and livestock surveillance,” Goldstein said. “The idea was to bring wildlife into the surveillance system.”

The Trump administration moved over the past few years to stop funding Predict. However, the project’s work is now being extended until September to help with the COVID-19 response.

Through the project’s life, Predict researchers and investigators have detected more than 1,000 viruses. Goldstein said there are teams on the ground throughout the world, often in developing and high-risk areas where humans and animals come into contact under crowded, stressful conditions with little biosecurity such as masks and gloves.

“These viruses are likely to emerge in other areas, too,” she said. “You want to be thinking of where else and mitigate that risk.”

Early detection and identification can give science a leg up on testing, therapeutics and vaccine development.

“Boom and bust is a tough cycle,” Goldstein said. “If we don’t support this over the long term, you just can’t be properly prepared.”

Still, she feels hopeful that the current pandemic will be quelled and that new generations of scientists will rise to the challenges.

“I think this is a growing field,” Goldstein said. “We need the best minds.”

Not long after news of the current coronavirus outbreak began making headlines several weeks ago, reporters sought out the nation’s experts, including Saif at Ohio State.

She said she gave one of her first interviews to the local high school newspaper in Wooster, where her lab is based.

“At the end of the interview, I just emphasized that what we really need is more young people to go into science and study all the unknowns,” Saif said.

Though this pandemic is surely the biggest the students have seen, she said, it might not be the last.


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