UC Berkeley researchers discuss science behind COVID-19

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On Friday, UC Berkeley researchers discussed the scientific origin of coronaviruses in bats during an installment of the ongoing “Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19” series.

The virtual conversation was hosted by campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof and featured plant and microbial biology professor Britt Glaunsinger as well as Cara Brook, a postdoctoral fellow in the plant and microbial biology and integrative biology departments.

In addition to discussing the relationship between bats and the viruses they host, Glaunsinger and Brook discussed how new viruses are able to infect humans and reproduce, as well as how campus researchers are attempting to track the spread of COVID-19 and discover potential therapies.

When asked if they were surprised by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Glaunsinger and Brook said they had anticipated the possibility of a “spillover event,” in which a pathogen leaps from its reservoir host population to humans.

“Any virologist you ask will say this was coming,” Glaunsinger said at the event, citing the spread of the 2002-03 severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak. “With world travel, you can spread everything around the globe with the speed that (COVID-19 has) been spreading.”

Brook added that COVID-19 was different because, typically, bat-borne pathogens cause diseases that are more fatal in humans but are less transmissible.

As deforestation and other practices that bring humans into closer contact with animal populations increase, the instances of spillover events will likely increase as well, Glaunsinger added. In addition to the bat coronaviruses that cause COVID-19, SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome, Glaunsinger cited the Ebola and Nipah viruses as examples of pathogens originating from an animal host.

According to Brook, a disproportionate number of coronaviruses have likely originated from bats because of evolutionary reasons. As the only flying mammal, bats have a much higher metabolic rate compared to other mammals.

“Bats had to evolve mechanisms that allow them to dampen inflammation and repair some of the damage that occurred during this normal metabolic process,” Brook said at the event. “It just so happens that a virus causes damage within a cell and also recruits immune cells to the site of infection and causes inflammation.”

Despite the personal and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, both Glaunsinger and Brook are optimistic about the role of science in fighting the disease.

Examples of this work from UC Berkeley include sequencing efforts and the development of CRISPR detection technologies at the Innovative Genomics Institute, as well as development efforts toward COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

“To have the entire scientific enterprise, whether or not they’re virologists, bringing in their expertise to try and come up with creative solutions, how that has worked to me is a delightful surprise,” Glaunsinger said at the event.

Contact Jessica Li at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @JessicaLi57.