6 Aug 2020

Covid-19 unmasked: experts discuss coronavirus

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 6 August 2020

University of Otago virologists and public health experts join William Ray for a coronavirus discussion at the 2020 New Zealand International Science Festival.

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Studying SARS-CoV2

Miguel Quiñones-Mateu is a virologist at the University of Otago.

Miguel Quiñones-Mateu is a virologist at the University of Otago. Photo: University of Otago

Miguel Quiñones-Mateu is a virologist in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Otago.

He runs a secure Physical Containment lab (PC3) at the university, where researchers can safely isolate and grow SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, using samples taken from infected individuals.

He says he began work before New Zealand had its first case of covid-19, which made sourcing material difficult.

“But once we isolated the virus and we had it,” he says, “then we started sharing the genetic material. … It opened the door for projects like the vaccine initiative we’re involved in.”

“If we didn’t have that opportunity of working with the virus, we wouldn’t be where we are.”

Race to develop vaccines

Vernon Ward is a virologist at the University of Otago.

Vernon Ward is a virologist at the University of Otago. Photo: University of Otago

Vernon Ward is a virologist at the University of Otago. He is involved in the Oxford vaccine trial, which is one of the leading covid-19 vaccine possibilities that has just gone to stage 3 clinical trials.

He says the project is an international collaboration that involves experts around the world.

“There are many different labs working on this. No one country can do it by themselves.”

“There’s a huge amount of collaboration between the different parties,” says Vernon

“One of my colleagues was asked if this was a race and he pointed out it’s not a race between all the developers; it’s actually a race against the virus.”

Tracking the spread of the virus

University of Otago virologist Jemma Geoghegan.

University of Otago virologist Jemma Geoghegan. Photo: University of Otago

University of Otago virologist Jemma Geoghegan is involved in sequencing samples of the coronavirus and by comparing mutations she is helping map the spread of the disease.

Jemma says that when a virus makes copies of itself it makes mistakes, which are mutations. These mutations then get passed on.

“If we look at the virus genome from all the cases then what we can do is reconstruct a family tree or evolutionary tree.”

“We can use that to track who infected who,” says Jemma, “and develop really accurate contact networks.”

Jemma and colleagues at ESR sequence the genomes of covid-19 samples collected from returning travellers who are in managed isolation or in quarantine.

The rate at which coronavirus mutates

Jemma says that coronavirus is about four times slower at mutating than the influenza virus.

“On average this virus has about 20 mutations in one genome per year.”

By comparison “influenza has about 50 mutations and it has a genome that is half the length.”

“This is all good news for vaccines as it points to the fact that it is a very slow mutating virus so a vaccine might be more long-lasting” than the flu vaccine, which has to be updated every year.


Listen to the podcast to hear Miguel, Vernon and Jemma talk about their work. They are joined by Michael Baker who talks about public health measures, and David Murdoch who talks about possible treatments, especially repurposing existing drugs.

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