The COVID-19 coronavirus was isolated in Rome from two Chinese tourists. What does it mean to isolate a virus, how is it done, and what is it for?

At the Spallanzani Institute in Rome, a centre of excellence for research on infectious diseases, the COVID-19 coronavirus has been isolated. This is an excellent result but not just the first time. In fact, already on January 10, 2020 Chinese researchers had isolated and sequenced the virus and made the data available to the scientific community — and even more recently the virus has been isolated in both Australia and France.

The credit goes to a team consisting mainly of women, in particular to the young temporary researcher Francesca Colavita, 30 years old from Campobasso. Dr. Colavita already has considerable experience in the field of “exotic” infectious diseases. In fact, during the Ebola epidemic she left several times for Liberia and Sierra Leone, where she participated in important international projects.

What does it mean to isolate a virus and what does it mean to sequence it?

A virus is isolated when it is found in biological samples taken from patients; in the case of coronavirus, saliva or swabs taken from the throat. Once taken, the samples must be handled with care, in order to be analyzed.

Sequencing a virus means reading its genetic code and therefore knowing the “identity card” of the virus.

What is the purpose of sequencing a virus?

It serves many purposes:

– To find out if the virus isolated in patients (in our case, the two Chinese tourists) is the same virus that was isolated in Wuhan, the initial spread zone of the COVID-19 coronavirus;
potentially to develop a vaccine
– To develop diagnostic tests to identify the virus quickly and possibly early
– To test or develop other drugs that may be useful for therapeutic purposes

And the vaccine?

Let’s spend a few words on the possibility of developing a vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus. In my opinion, the ability to produce a vaccine against this coronavirus is of limited importance. First of all, because it takes time to produce an effective and safe vaccine and therefore the peak of the epidemic will have passed as we have been taught by the epidemics of SARS (Acute Respiratory Syndrome of 2002) and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome of 2012). In addition, a vaccine is usually developed to target the virus surface proteins; those that allow the virus to enter the cells of the host organism, and in this case: humans.

However, these surface proteins are also those most exposed to the immune system of the host, and therefore they adapt and mutate, making the vaccine ineffective. In other words, what happens with influenza is that you must be vaccinated every year, because the virus strains are different enough not to be susceptible to the vaccine that was effective just one year before.

What safety measures are there in Italy?

The latest data regarding Italy suggest that there are no dangers and that the security measures adopted by our government have been effective, primarily the health checks carried out on passengers on flights from Wuhan and landed at Fiumicino in recent days. Of course, the two infected Chinese tourists have entered our country, but we must also remember that the virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days, and as soon as the symptoms manifested they were immediately hospitalized at Spallanzani and treated in conditions of maximum security.

The virus is still growing, but the mortality…

Meanwhile, in China there are over 14,300 people infected and 305 dead. The virus is not growing in virulence, and the emergency measures taken by the Chinese government are also having an effect. Let us always remember that the deaths are mainly caused by people with compromised immune systems or the elderly. A healthy person will experience viral pneumonia with known symptoms, but this is not life-threatening.

This post is also available in: Italiano


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