Analysis: a better understanding of the biology of microbes like coronaviruses will help us with future outbreaks

The current coronavirus pandemic is causing great uncertainty for us all. Concern over post-lockdown life is natural, and can be used to motivate our understanding of the minuscule bugs that cause disease. Molecular biology can help us identify infections, break transmission chains and develop treatments for the sick and it's our ticket to a healthier future.

Pandemics are not new

Although easily forgotten, pandemics are frequent interruptions to normal life, but have historically occurred over small geographic areas. Pandemics across the globe are rare, but cause huge disruption and force radical change. Given our recent episodes of SARS-CoV-1, MERS and Ebola, we have reason for concern.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, your coronavirus questions answered by Dr Nuala O'Connor (Irish College of General Practitioners' lead advisor on Covid-19), Professor Mary Horgan (President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and Consultant in Infectious Diseases at CUH) and Kingston Mills (Professor of Experimental Immunology at Trinity College Dublin).

In our increasingly connected and urbanised world, we need to consider that new emerging microbes that cause disease (called "pathogens") can now spread more easily. Novel pathogens causing local outbreaks are an inevitable aspect of life. As an illustration, a new lineage of swine H1N1 influenza A that emerged from a single district in the United states in 2009 is now part of seasonal flu that pressurises health systems across the world.

Future pandemic threats are circulating now

Many nasty viruses, bacteria and fungi exist peacefully in livestock and wild animals. Birds and farmed animals are known sources of novel flu subtypes because they can host distinct viruses at the same time. This allows related viruses to mix and create mosaic virus offspring that sometimes are better adapted to their normal hosts - and if they ever get the chance, they can be lethal in humans. This continuous mixing and competition means new emergent pathogens are common.

Differences in human cell receptor shape and function mean that we are often lucky: we are not susceptible. For instance, bovine coronavirus is a common pest affecting cows, and is related to MERS and SARS-CoV-1. However, it does not infect us well and we can get the common cold instead from one of its relatives. Diverse coronavirus strains are abundant globally, and so all animals, including humans, represent potential mixing vessels that will give rise to the next outbreak.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Philip Boucher-Hayes reports on the hunt for a cure for COVID-19

What's infecting you?

So how can we prepare for the inevitable? How can we combat the evolutionary power of viruses? How can we survive in a hyper-connected world?

Genetic analyses are a key part of infectious disease control. Find your bat or bird or buffalo, take your sample, and decipher the pathogen’s DNA (or RNA) code to reveal the mystery within. This genome sequencing tells us what’s infecting you. We know from the Ebolavirus and seasonal flu how this can pick up weird hybrid bugs not seen before.

Where did your infection come from?

Testing has to operate on a massive scale. How similar your infection is to what we’ve seen before can be quantified from the genome sequence changes. Remember SARS-CoV-2 was a known problem in late December 2019. We know contract tracing and extensive testing is effective: genetic data will aid finding transmission events, including asymptomatic transfer. Mobile-enabled digital tracing may be a next step, though with natural privacy concerns.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Dr Padraig McGarry (President of the Irish Medical Organisation), Dr Kim Roberts (Professor of Microbiology at Trinity College) and Dr Margaret Ann Harris (World Health Organisation) discuss the global spread of Covid-19.

Are seasonal coronaviruses on the horizon?

Real-time infection tracking is important because coronaviruses spread like wildfire. By linking together many samples, SARS-CoV-2 right now undergoes about two genetic mutations per month. This estimate will likely fall as our "molecular clock" calculations have more data to work with.

Fortunately, the vast majority of these mutations will not make the viruses an even bigger problem as these are "neutral" changes. Like all living agents, decoding viral sequence tell us about its history. This means long-term seasonal, genetic and evolutionary patterns can inform public health strategies and medical treatments. We do not yet know if SARS-CoV-2 may become a seasonal problem.

Vaccine development is a thorny challenge needing time provided by extensive testing. Genome sequences can tell us what vaccine candidate can hit good viral targets, like ones on the virus surface that rarely mutate. Linking historical and current genetic patterns means that vaccines can be designed that target predicted future SARS-CoV-2 strains. This tricky task is normal for flu.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Cian McCormack reports on the race for a coronavirus vaccine

Coronavirus may distract from other killers

Infections cause great distress and are expensive to treat and we are lucky that they are avoidable. We know many SARS-CoV-2 cases get co-infected with other pathogens, especially bacteria. Pathogens such as measles that originated in livestock can cause long-term immune damage. This means we need to do rapid genetic analyses on other bugs too. Automating basic genetic, medical and microbiological analyses is possible, and long-term infection data on e-Health records could be really informative.

Pandemics like this coronavirus can be pre-empted if clinical, biomedical and scientific staff work closely together. Temporary public measures buy time, which we should use to think about the future we want to live in. For instance, can drones swoop in for swabs to deliver to our new devoted testing centres?


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ