#FEMSmicroBlog: Unravelling the pandemic one paper at a time


Due to the current pandemic, the public focus shifted towards microbiology research. Many studies aimed at better understanding the molecular details of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections, while others looked at epidemiological patterns or public health consequences. FEMS journals collected free-to-read articles from the fields of vaccine development, respiratory viruses as well as long-term and herd immunity against severe acute respiratory syndrome type 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in a virtual issue. Sarah Wettstadt summarises this issue and highlights publications worthy of reading even when you’re from outside this exciting field. #FascinatingMicrobes


About the origin of SARS-CoV-2

While current travel restrictions aim to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2 at the borders, wild birds know no borders as discussed in the review “Wild birds as reservoirs for diverse and abundant gamma- and deltacoronaviruses” in FEMS Microbiology Reviews. Using genome sequence and ecological data, the authors explore the evolution of gamma- and deltacoronaviruses based on their presence in different wild birds.

CoV strains in wild bird reservoir hosts
Wild birds as hosts of gammacoronaviruses and deltacoronaviruses. From Wille and Holmes (2020).

The review outlines that the two zoonotic coronaviruses SARS-CoV and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)-CoV ultimately derived from bats before they moved to humans via intermediate hosts. However, cross-species transmission within wild birds as well as from wild birds to domestic birds and to mammals are still far from understood.


About SARS-CoV-2 infections

Interestingly, some reservoir animals like bats carry a high viral load while they do not show any disease symptoms. Similarly, up to 80% of individuals that were diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 show no symptoms. These individuals have a poor immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infections in comparison to symptomatic individuals.

The Priority Paper Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection: is it all about being refractile to innate immune sensing of viral spare-parts? – Clues from exotic animal reservoirs published in Pathogens and Disease explores the question of why many people infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus remain asymptomatic while still shedding virus particles and transmitting the disease.

Symptoms of COVID-19, SARS and MERS infections can also include severe systemic complications as outlined in the mini-review “SARS, MERS and COVID-19: clinical manifestations and organ-system complications” published in Pathogens and Disease. While clinical symptoms upon infections with these three respiratory coronaviruses are substantially similar, their different clinical manifestations and complications suggest different underlying molecular mechanisms.

The most common manifestation of these three viral diseases includes flu-like symptoms as fever, myalgia, cough and malaise. Additionally, the mini-review describes the unique cardiac, renal, gastrointestinal, hepatic, neurological and hematologic complications linked to each virus. Special focus is given to the cytokine-release syndrome – or cytokine storm – that has been mainly described in cases of COVID-19.

The cytokine storm model of COVID-19 disease.
The cytokine storm model of COVID-19 disease. From Harb et al. (2020).


About ways to stop SARS-CoV-2

To protect ourselves and our society from this awful virus, the microLife short review “Development of vaccines at the time of COVID-19” argues that the development of protective vaccines is one of the greatest achievements in public health.

The authors of this short review give an overview of the history of vaccination highlighting Edward Jenner as well as the principle of attenuation resulting in the generation of broadly used vaccines. Over the years, with advanced technologies and increasing knowledge in immunology, microbiology, molecular biology and structural biology, we managed to develop more effective and even safer vaccines. Eventually, this led to the fastest development of a protective vaccine in history.

Yet, the authors bemoan that nowadays, vaccination coverage decreases and its distribution is still limited while infectious agents spread faster globally due to increased air travel. Hence, the authors demand world leaders to significantly support vaccine development as well as education and dissemination of scientific knowledge.

When we arrive in the post-COVID-19 era, world leaders must resolve to never allow a disease outbreak to happen again by ensuring significantly strengthened R&D support for vaccine development and other infectious disease interventions. The authors of Jeffrey Almond et al. (2021).

In an attempt to increase scientific education, lecturers at the Istanbul Technical University taught microbiology theory with the example of the current pandemic and investigated the behavioural changes of their students. The results were published in the Research Letter “Analysis of University student responses to the pandemic in a formal microbiology assessment” in FEMS Microbiology Letters.

The course investigated how the newly acquired microbiology knowledge helped the students understand the restrictions applied during the pandemic. Special focus lied on the dissemination of knowledge amongst their families and friends and how they changed their behaviours accordingly, which the authors regarded as a success.


Better understanding SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19

Lots of research currently tries to tackle this novel coronavirus and its implication. This new Virtual Issue on the latest research on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 aims to showcase where we are standing in the fight against this disease.


About the author of this blog

Dr Sarah Wettstadt is a microbiologist-turned science writer and communicator working on various outreach projects and helping researchers talk and write about their scientific results. Her overall vision is to empower through learning: she shares scientific knowledge with both scientists and non-scientists and coaches scientists in writing about their research. Sarah is blog commissioner for the FEMSmicroBlog and was a social media editor for FEMS for 1.5 years. Previous to her science communication career, she worked as a postdoc in Marían Llamas’ lab on Pseudomonas aeruginosa’s ability to use heterologous iron sources and completed her PhD with Alain Filloux investigating the type 6 secretion system in Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

About this blog section

The section #FascinatingMicrobes for the #FEMSmicroBlog explains the science behind a paper and highlights the significance and broader context of a recent finding. One of the main goals is to share the fascinating spectrum of microbes across all fields of microbiology.

Do you want to be a guest contributor?
The #FEMSmicroBlog welcomes external bloggers, writers and SciComm enthusiasts. Get in touch if you want to share your idea for a blog entry with us!

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