What is the novel coronavirus?
“Coronaviruses” describe a large family of viruses that can cause a wide range of illnesses, from the common cold to extremely severe illnesses like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Recently, coronavirus has been in the news because a new strain has caused a worldwide pandemic. This strain, officially named by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “COVID-19,” has not been identified in humans before.
Where is the novel coronavirus outbreak?
In late December 2019, the WHO was informed of several cases of viral pneumonia of unknown cause found in the city of Wuhan, China. These patients presented with fever, cough, shortness of breath, and eventually breathing difficulties. Just one month later, the WHO declared this coronavirus outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The vast majority of cases have been identified in Wuhan, China, with cases now reported in over 30 countries worldwide. You can take a look at the official WHO situation reports for the latest figures here.
How is the virus transmitted?
Our current understanding of this coronavirus and how it spreads is largely based on what we know about similar coronaviruses. The virus can spread through human-to-human transmission (typically between people in close contact) via respiratory droplets produced by coughing or sneezing. It is estimated that the incubation period of the virus is about 14 days.
What research is being done on the new coronavirus?
Global healthcare workers and researchers are working as quickly as possible to bring this outbreak to a close. The Lancet has an excellent COVID-19 Resource Centre that summarizes all publications to the journal on the virus. One of the first steps in research and development of a cure is to be able to replicate coronavirus in the laboratory setting. Australian scientists from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne have been able to grow the virus in the lab from a patient sample. Being able to grow the virus in a controlled research environment is important because then scientists will have to ability to validate and verify all test methods related to COV-19. Lab-grown coronavirus can also help aid the production of antibody testing, allowing for earlier detection of the virus in patients during the incubation period.
The WHO warns that it may take 18 months before a vaccine against the coronavirus is publicly available. Why does it take so long? We have to first understand the viral characteristics and how the virus infects humans. Developing an animal model helps, which take time. If we do make a vaccine, we have to then demonstrate that its safe to use in pre-clinical trials. Finally, vaccines can then be tested in clinical trials to achieve the necessary regulatory approvals. Historically, vaccines have taken 2-5 years to develop. Another challenge is making the vaccine cost-effective. Each of these steps poses a potential challenge in containing the coronavirus outbreak.
How can coronavirus be studied using tissue slices?
Since we’re experts in tissue slicing, naturally we wondered how tissue sections can play a role in coronavirus research. In the literature, precision-cut tissue slices (PCTS) from the lung, kidney, liver, spleen, and many other organs have been used as ex vivo models to study the behavior of viruses. Precision-cut tissue slices help combine the advantages of in vitro and in vivo models through its flexibility and high throughput use. For example, precision-cut lung slices (PCLS) would be particularly relevant for COVID-19 research because this coronavirus strain appears to cause difficulty breathing and pneumonia. Here is a quick guide for how PCLS are made with the Compresstome: