Roslin scientists support work to tackle coronavirus
Roslin scientists are contributing to meeting the challenge of the current coronavirus outbreak.
Researchers at the Roslin Institute are taking part in global efforts to better understand and develop therapies for the ongoing coronavirus infection.
Their work could help ease the impact of the latest outbreak of coronavirus (CoV) infections. This large family of viruses causes illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) and now, COVID-19.
The current outbreak of novel coronavirus in China is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. Whilst the disease is called COVID-19, the virus was originally named 2019-nCoV, and is now formally named SARS-CoV-2.
Spread of the virus
The virus rapidly spread to infect more than 79,000 people in the three months since the first case was documented in December 2019.
While the numbers of new cases in China seem to be declining, there is a growing number of cases in other countries, including the UK. These include cases that are no longer traceable to individuals who have travelled from China or other regions of south-east Asia, indicating that the virus is beginning to spread away from its original epicentre.
The novel coronavirus can cause a range of symptoms from a mild illness to very severe infection, but it is thought that the majority of cases will be mild with a long incubation period of around two weeks.
Sharing valuable data
At the Roslin Institute, researchers are analysing rapidly shared, publicly available and accessible genetic information about the virus.
Many organisations in China and other affected countries, including the UK, have been able to perform rapid whole genome sequencing – detailing the genetic code of the virus – and to share the results with the global scientific community. Sequences are deposited on the scientific databases GenBank and the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID).
This information enables researchers to immediately study the novel virus. It has also suggested possible features of the virus’s molecular make-up, which may explain some facets of its behaviour and point towards novel therapies.
Comparison with other viruses
Roslin scientists are investigating similarities between the latest virus and SARS-CoV, which is better known medically and was first identified in the early 2000s, as well as related bat viruses.
These comparisons are already helping to identify genetic regions of the new virus that may be changing in response to it infecting people. The insights could help devise strategies to control SARS-CoV-2 and better understand how it spreads.
Origin of the novel virus
Researchers are working to trace when and how the current coronavirus first transmitted from an animal to a person. By knowing this, they can explore what factors made it possible for the virus to spread.
Currently, the genetic details of novel coronavirus samples from humans are very similar to each other. They differ by only a few variations in the genetic code across the whole sequence of about 30,000 letters of DNA.
This indicates that there has been a relatively short time since the disease originally emerged in humans for changes in the genetic code to accumulate.
The approximate time of emergence can be estimated using the sequence data. This is done by looking at how and where the virus spreads, as well as how it evolves.
Based on the current sequence data, the virus may have emerged around November or December 2019, which is consistent with the known early cases, although there is a degree of uncertainty, scientists say.
The most similar other coronavirus to SARS-CoV-2 is found in bats. However, there are sufficient differences between the two to suggest that the current outbreak did not derive directly from bats. There could be other, more similar, viruses from other species that have not yet been sampled, scientists explain. In fact, viruses with similar sequences have now been found in pangolins, although the role of pangolins in the current outbreak is still unclear.
Based on evidence from previous outbreaks of similar types of infection such as SARS, treating coronavirus patients with steroids provides little benefit and could do more harm than good, University of Edinburgh scientists conclude.
Steroids impair the immune system’s ability to fight viruses and other infections that often develop in patients with life-threatening illness.
Patients with MERS or SARS who were treated with steroids seemed to take longer to clear the infection from their bodies, but the evidence is not clear and clinical trials will be needed to be sure.
Experts around the world, including Roslin researchers, are working together to understand and tackle the virus.
Dr Kenneth Baillie, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Anaesthesia and Critical Care at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Inflammation Research and the Roslin Institute, is collaborating with experts in the UK and internationally to tackle the outbreak.
Dr Baillie is a member of two panels of the World Health Organization for the coronavirus, and attended a recent research prioritisation meeting in Geneva. Together with Professor Calum Semple from the University of Liverpool, Dr Baillie is leading a UK-wide consortium to characterise clinical cases of coronavirus infection.
Dr Samantha Lycett, Research Group Leader at the Roslin Institute, is analysing virus sequence data using phylogenetics and modelling alongside the international sequence modelling community.
Dr Christine Burkard, Roslin Career Track Fellow, and Professor Paul Digard, Chair of Virology, are studying molecular details of the virus’s interaction with host cells, as part of international collaborative networks with colleagues in China, Singapore, the EU and UK.
** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **