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The Universitat de València sets off the coronavirus alarm

  • March 5th, 2020
From left to right, the participants of the debate on the coronavirus organised by the Science Park of the Universitat de València Ron Geller, Mireia Coscollá, Santiago F. Elena and Fernando González-Candelas. / Photo: Diana Moret i Soler
From left to right, the participants of the debate on the coronavirus organised by the Science Park of the Universitat de València Ron Geller, Mireia Coscollá, Santiago F. Elena and Fernando González-Candelas. / Photo: Diana Moret i Soler

Mireia Coscollá, Santiago F. Elena, Ron Geller and Fernando González-Candelas expose some of the myths surrounding the epidemic.

For several weeks now, SARS-CoV-2 has been presented to the world's population as if it was a film villain. Along with its expansion, voices of alarm have flooded the media and social networks to the point of generating a collective state of nerves resulting from lack of knowledge. In view of this situation, the Universitat de València brought together a committee of experts on Monday to provide scientific data and resolve doubts in a public debate on the new COVID-19 pneumonia epidemic.

Mireia Coscollá, Santiago F. Elena, Ron Geller and Fernando González-Candelas, members of the Program for Pathogen Systems Biology of the Institute for Integrative Systems Biology (Universitat de València-CSIC) were in charge of explaining how coronavirus affects Spain and addressing the concerns raised during this debate.

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a large family of viruses that cause human illness. One of its particularities is that it has a very low mutation rate due to its length: between 26 and 32 kilobases compared to the usual 10 kilobases of RNA —ribonucleic acid— viruses. According to the experts, this is relevant because it produces fewer changes in its genome throughout the epidemic process than other viruses that have a higher mutation rate, so we have to develop more immune responses, as in the case of the flu. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can produce the illness known as COVID-19.

Bat zoonosis?

The experts explained that any of the emerging coronaviruses has a reservoir animal: rodents, primates, birds, horses... At a given moment, the virus present in the animal jumps to humans and replicates in them. This process goes under the name of zoonosis, an animal disease that can be transmitted to humans. In the case of the coronavirus, although everything suggests that it is due to a bat zoonosis, a sufficiently similar virus has not yet been found. However, the probabilities that it comes from this species are high. What is yet to be found is the intermediate host. Other possibilities also point out species such as snakes or pangolins, according to Santiago F. Elena, CSIC Research Professor.

It affects everyone equally?

We know that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through saliva droplets when talking or sneezing or through contaminated surfaces, where the virus is deposited and remains active for a few hours until it is completely degraded. As stated by Fernando González-Candelas, Professor in Genetics of the Universitat de València, differences have been found among those infected. “Within the cases of COVID-19, there is a mortality bias between men and women, and young and old,” he affirmed. Gender distinction is due to the fact that men express more the ACE2 receptor, the cell membrane protein that the virus uses to enter our bodies. Thus, the elderly population is one of the groups the greatest risk of coronavirus mortality, especially when it is associated with respiratory diseases, heart disease or diabetes. And if one of the most sensitive groups is the elderly, why do some young health workers have died from the virus? According to González-Candelas, when a young person is infected and develops a pathology that can end in death, the body’s reaction mechanism is very different from what happens with elderly and immunocompromised people: “Young people have an immune system so well prepared for an infection that a ‘cytokine storm’ develops, which ends up collapsing their lungs due to the excessive response to a novel infection, as occurs in some cases of the flu,” explained the researcher.

Is the reinfection possible?

Ron Geller, researcher of the Viral Biology Research Group of the Universitat de València, noted that, in principle, there’s little chance that a SARS-CoV-2 reinfection will occur. However, if that is the case, the body will respond with greater immunity than previous times, resulting in lower mortality. According to González-Candelas, there are articles that discuss about the possibility of reinfection of the virus; in other words, patients who have been discharged and after some time come back positive for the diagnostic test of the virus —PCR positive—; but it is not yet known whether this corresponds to reinfection or to the possibility that there is some type of undiscovered reservoir that produces small amounts of virus without clinical repercussions.

Have there been any undetected cases of COVID-19 during the winter?

According to Mireia Coscollá, researcher of the Bacterial Pathogenomics Group of the Universitat de València, it is very difficult that in Spain there have been cases of infection during the last months of 2019, because all estimates of the origin of the virus are located in China from December. She explained that it is also difficult to confuse COVID-19 with another infection such as the flu, since the only thing they share in common is high fever, but while one produces mucus and high muscle pain, the new infection causes a sensation of suffocation. “With COVID-19 there doesn’t seem to be that widespread muscle pain, so symptomatically they’re not easy to confuse,” she added.

Will there be an infection in the summer?

Temperature does not guarantee a decrease in infection. González-Candelas explained that there is seasonal coronavirus. Yet, we cannot affirm if the SARS-CoV-2 is one of them. It is possible that the widespread disappearance of a virus in the community occurs during the summer, but this does not mean that it is a consequence of the season itself, because there have also been cases of flu during the months of July and August, such as the 2009 flu epidemic. However, there are still not enough data to verify if the new virus will be extinguished by the rise in temperature.

What are the preparations in Spain?

At this stage of the epidemic, preparedness consists of being clear about where the infection may come from, what the cases are and how they can be reliably diagnosed, and having the health system ready to receive those patients who need it. As an information measure, the Spanish Ministry of Health has published various documents aimed at providing updated information on the situation and setting guidelines to be followed in the face of the epidemic, for both professionals and citizens. One of the current objectives is to prevent the circulation of the virus within the community, as is the case in other parts of the world such as the United States.

At the moment, the epidemiological situation in Spain is under control, the experts said, adding that measures such as the cancellation of large events have been considered inconvenient for the time being. Although the committee of researchers expect to develop a treatment that can generate an immune response to SARS-CoV-2, González-Candelas recalled that in the late 1960s, it was thought that infections were over. “Since then we have had new pathogens that were unknown until now, and this will not be the last,” explained the Professor in genetics, who added that today’s society does not live “in an isolated box” and that “globalisation works in every way”.

“The best anti-viral measure would be to shut down Twitter”

Santiago F. Elena used this phrase to report the number of hoaxes arising from the SARS-CoV-2 expansion. In times of social alarm, social networks and the media can contribute to widespread misinformation and this hinders scientific communication and the possibility of taking collective action to address the epidemic. The experts concluded the debate by appealing to the common sense of the citizens to promote the use of reliable sources and to avoid the exhaustion of the reserves of masks of the pharmacies that, on the other hand, do not protect against the virus. But, just if there’s still any doubt about the pseudo information circulating on the Internet, the WHO has published a document which denies the most bizarre rumours about SARS-CoV-2 that have been spread so far.

Source: Mètode


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