UWF Helps Search for Answers for Coronavirus

Feb 11, 2020

A new cluster of viral pneumonia cases originating in Wuhan, China, marks the third time in 20 years that a member of the large family of coronaviruses (CoVs) has jumped from animals to humans creating an outbreak.
Credit National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Faculty experts from across the country convened at the University of West Florida’s Darrell Gooden Center last week for a two-day workshop on the coronavirus. Their particular focus was on the virus, and how it fares on airliners.

Let’s start with a new name --"COVID-19." Announced Monday by Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

“C-O-V-I-D – hyphen – 1-9,” said Ghebreyesus. “C-O stands for Corona; V-I stands for virus, [and] D for disease.”

The “19” refers to 2019, the year the virus was discovered.

In finding a name for the virus, Ghebreyesus said they had to avoid geographical locations; animals, individuals or groups of people.

“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” said Ghebreyesus. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”

As of Monday, the organization reported nearly 43,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in China, with more than 1,000 deaths there. Elsewhere, there are 393 cases in two dozen countries with one death, in the Philippines.

Representatives from Arizona State University — a location with a reported coronavirus case, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical and New York universities and University of West Florida discussed Pedestrian Dynamics and Epidemic Modeling at UWF’s Darrell Gooden Center last week.

Dr. Anuj Mubayi, Arizona St. University.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

“It is still unclear what the source of this virus is; but there has been some news that it could be bats or other mammals that could be the source of this virus,” said Dr. Anuj Mubayi, an assistant professor of applied mathematics at Arizona State University.

One of the areas under scrutiny is how the pathogen is spread in the close confines of an aircraft.

“Now, the difference from one pathogen to another is when someone coughs – for example, [a] respiratory virus – it is how far [the] particles are moving in the air,” said Mubayi. “Whether it’s through the mucous or from touching; those things become very important.”

Unlike the coronavirus, Mubayi says Ebola is spread from body fluids.

“If someone’s touching some surface with the body fluids and then the next person soon after touches the same surface, [you] have the possibility of getting an infection,” said Mubayi. “Whereas, [coronavirus] is airborne, pathogen movement.”

Meanwhile, the race is on to develop either a vaccine against coronavirus, or perhaps an outright cure. Mubayi says any such treatment could be used in concert with the only known effective methods of dealing with an unknown pathogen or disease.

“Any outbreak which happens and you don’t know anything about, the first thing you do is the quarantine measures,” Mubayi said. “Avoiding the contact of that person with the rest of the population. The other one is isolation, which is if the person is infected isolating [them] in some way that nobody comes in touch with the person.”

The work with this group and elsewhere appears be on a fast track; Mubayi says coronavirus is on the verge of developing into a pandemic.

“Just because it has been imported from so many countries, all of the cases except for China have been very few,” Mubayi said. [Friday there’s] an article in the New York Times that says it could become very quickly a pandemic.”

“People here have done different aspects of air travel; looked at queuing in terms of boarding the aircraft, said Dr. Vicki Hertzberg, a biostatistician and public health researcher with Emory University in Atlanta.

[“My own with my colleague Hallie Weiss;] we look at how diseases might spread by close proximity [and] interactions, among the passengers right on the airplane,” Hertzberg said.

Combatting illness in such enclosed spaces is a special concern, calling for a study of all aspects of air travel and aircraft design.

“We also have an engineer, focusing on ventilation; simulating how somebody coughs, how that spreads through the air, given the ventilation flow in the airplane,” said Hertzberg. “

With global air travel the norm, Hertzberg says a major challenge is keeping the virus from getting into a country not only through aircraft, but also through Mother Nature.

“Likely there’s vectors like birds, and that the birds don’t observe borders,” said Hertzberg. “The birds are going to go where the birds are going to go; people will come in contact with the birds and that will itself lead to the spread of the epidemic.”

And it’s been only recently that researchers have discovered that the coronavirus is an airborne illness, and in open spaces -- unlike a jetliner cabin -- not that easily contracted.

“We assume that it’s spread by somebody coughing or sneezing, and it’s the large droplets you can almost see,” Hertzberg said. “The fall to the ground relatively quickly; and so if you’re outside that zone -- which is about a meter, maybe two meters -- you’re not going to get infected.”

When she travels by air, Hertzberg has her own rituals and practices to lessen any possible exposure to coronavirus or any other illness.

“I personally book a window seat and I don’t move during the flight,” said Hertzberg. “If I have to move I try to minimalize it as much as possible. That means I’m coming into contact with fewer people and therefore, limiting my exposure to potentially infectious people.”

On the ground, doctors advise protecting yourself from coronavirus as you would against influenza – plenty of hand-washing; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, avoid close contact with those who are sick, and stay home if you are sick.

More information is available at www.cde.gov/coronavirus.