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Utah scientists awarded grant to study coronavirus amid rising number of Utah cases

By Wendy Leonard, KSL | Updated - Mar. 19, 2020 at 3:34 p.m. | Posted - Mar. 19, 2020 at 11:32 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Physicists at the University of Utah have been awarded a grant to study how environmental conditions might affect the spread of the novel coronavirus.

This is ongoing as a rising number of cases are being confirmed in Utah.

The Utah Department of Health on Thursday said 79 Utahns have now tested positive with COVID-19 after more than 1,526 people have been tested, though some labs aren’t reporting tests with negative results.

It’s a jump of 16 cases in one day, according to the health department.

Additional cities in Utah are declaring states of emergency, including Herriman on Thursday. The declaration, which is largely a formality, allows cities to have the option of federal and state funding assistance should virus response efforts need to be ramped up.

Researchers at the U. are also using their expertise to help.

“The idea is to figure out what makes this virus fall apart, what makes it tick, what makes it die,” said Michael Vershinin, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and co-principal investigator of the grant.

He said they are not working to find a treatment or develop a vaccine for the rapidly spreading illness, but “hopefully inform policy decisions going forward.”

Vershinin and Saveez Saffarian, also of the U.’s department of physics and astronomy, have searched the fully-sequenced SARS-COV-2 genome and found the exact genes responsible for the structural integrity of the virus. They will recreate it in a way that it won’t have the potential to replicate, infect or spread. And they will study it in living cells to see how it might react to changing temperatures and humidity levels — such as would happen during different seasons.

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“Coronavirus spreads similarly to the influenza virus, as small droplets suspended in the air,” Saffarian said.

He said viruses tend to lose their ability to infect people because they lose their structure in different environmental conditions.

Their study “is a clear example of how our investment in basic research years later prepares us for a response to a crisis that impacts not only our society, but also the world,” said Krastan Blagoev, director of the National Science Foundation’s physics division, which awarded the U. physicists the funding on an urgent basis to continue their dive into the global pandemic at the molecular level.

“You don’t just gain the insight that you want by looking at the virus on a large scale,” Vershinin said. “Looking at a single virus particle is the key to being able to tease out what’s going on.”

He credits modern advances in science for being able to arrive at new conclusions and “ask these questions in a way we never have before.”

Scientists across the globe are scrambling to understand all aspects of the fairly new and highly contagious illness and are learning new things every day. The U. physicists have been studying coronavirus since January and are prepared to help inform the ongoing dialogue that is framing how people react to the spread of this disease.

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