With cases of the coronavirus spreading rapidly across the globe, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11 — and scientists everywhere are researching to better understand the virus.
Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences strives to fund interdisciplinary research on topics relating to the life sciences. Professors across different departments have a variety of specialties that can contribute to better understand the coronavirus and its global impact.
Suresh Kuchipudi, a Penn State clinical professor and the associate director of animal diagnostic laboratory, published an article for The Conversation discussing why the world can expect more viruses like this coronavirus to evolve in the future.
His article talks about how factors such as increasing urbanization and use of animal markets contribute to the spread of viruses like the coronavirus, as they jump from different animal species before genetically modifying to infect humans.
This is not the first coronavirus the world has faced, according to Kuchipudi.
In 2003, the first severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus began in southern China and infected about 8,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus began in Saudi Arabia and infected over 2,000 people, according to WHO.
COVID-19 is the second SARS coronavirus, and it has spread more rapidly than the first SARS coronavirus or the MERS coronavirus, Kuchipudi said. Over 200,000 people have been infected as of March 18.
“Everyone should be mindful that this is a brand new virus that is spreading and we are learning more and more about this virus as the pandemic unfolds,” Kuchipudi said.
He said the emergence of infectious diseases like these can happen “anywhere, anytime,” as the globe continues to become more connected. It makes it hard to predict when a virus will be as severe as this coronavirus has been.
Kuchipudi explained the scientific concept of “one health” and its relation to the coronavirus.
“‘One health’ takes into account that human health is not isolated, but it is intricately linked to animal health and environmental health,” Kuchipudi said.
He added that looking at the big picture of “one health” cases, such as COVID-19, will likely continue given circumstances across the globe.
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The main goal of researchers right now is to better understand the pathogenicity of the coronavirus, including how it makes those it infects sick, how it spreads and possible strategies for intervention, according to Kuchipudi.
Penn State’s Huck Institutes is also accepting proposals to potentially provide funding for coronavirus research.
In regard to preventing the spread of the coronavirus, Kuchipudi emphasized the three most important steps: avoid travel, avoid large gatherings and wash your hands “thoroughly and frequently.” He also said keeping up to date with recommendations from the CDC and WHO is important in understanding the current state of the virus.
“We need to understand that this is a real thing that is spreading fast and killing people,” Kuchipudi said. “I think we all have to do our part by following those common sense measures.”
On Wednesday, Penn State announced that classes will continue to be taught remotely for the duration of the semester.
“You can clearly see the logic of why, because the social interaction or congregation of people makes the virus spread much wider and faster,” Kuchipudi said when the remote period was intended to last three weeks.
The governmental and institutional reactions to the coronavirus create a long chain of events, leaving an impact on areas the virus has yet to reach.
“While [State College] may be remote geographically, we’re quite connected to other communities because our students travel, our faculty travel,” Elizabeth McGraw, director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, said. “It’s hard to predict how it’s going to happen here.”
McGraw said it is important for everyone to “self-sacrifice” during times like this and to remember the impact community members can have on each other’s lives.
“I think the thing that is hard for people to understand is, even if you are young and healthy and this will only be a common cold to you, it's your job to try and help keep the infection from getting to older people,” McGraw said.
Sandeep Prabhu — a Penn State professor of immunology and molecular toxicology, and head of the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences — said he thinks the university is taking all the appropriate measures possible as it takes changing factors into consideration.
“If people follow the general guidelines about self quarantining themselves and taking all precautions, I think it shouldn’t be a big deal to contain this [at Penn State],” Prabhu said. “It depends very much on students, as well.”
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