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SALT LAKE CITY — A team of researchers at the University of Utah has made critical discoveries about how the coronavirus spreads.
They started investigating the role mucus plays in the transmission of COVID-19 nearly two years ago, as the coronavirus emerged in Utah. Now, their research, which was published Monday, shows more about how the virus does and does not spread from person to person.
Early in the pandemic, there was a lot of concern about transmission of the virus on surfaces. Will touching a contaminated door knob or box, then touching your face, make you sick?
Research led by Dr. Jessica Kramer at the University of Utah shows the virus spreads most effectively from direct contact from person to person, and not on a surface.
"We've been researching mucus in my lab and in my training labs for almost 10 years. So, it's the perfect place to start helping in the pandemic," said Kramer, who is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering.
She said the pandemic has motivated her team to seek solutions. So, early in the pandemic, they started testing how well the coronavirus spreads in mucus and saliva.
"We found that mucus and saliva contain proteins that inhibit the infection of coronavirus, and the effect was stronger when the mucus and the virus dried together on a surface," she said.
They tested viral transmission on plastic, metal glass, and surgical masks, and the effect was the same.
"When the virus dries in water, it's active and infects cells," Kramer said. "When it dries with mucus or saliva, it is no longer active, and it could not infect live cells."
These findings confirm what we've all witnessed during the course of the pandemic, she said.
Direct transmission through breathing droplets from the air, or direct contact — such as touching or kissing — are really the ways the virus spread. I think we have to worry a lot less about getting the virus from surfaces that we touch.
–Dr. Jessica Kramer, University of Utah
"Direct transmission through breathing droplets from the air, or direct contact — such as touching or kissing — are really the ways the virus spread," Kramer said. "I think we have to worry a lot less about getting the virus from surfaces that we touch."
She pointed out that it's still a good idea to practice good hygiene and wash your hands regularly.
"However, the major way that people will get the coronavirus is through direct contact with another infected person, such as touching or breathing the same air," she said.
People have different levels of these protective proteins in their mucus and saliva, based on genetics, diet, and environment.
"So, some people will have mucus that is more or less protective against the virus," Kramer said.
The results could help design new drugs that mimic the protective mucus proteins, and help screen for people who have higher, or lower levels of these protective proteins.
"So we can identify who is most vulnerable to infection or to spread the disease," she said.
Kramer's team hopes to continue this work to find out which proteins are the most protective, and whether animals might also have these protective proteins. She said that could have something to do with how the coronavirus jumps species.