UGA scientist leads coronavirus research on Griffin campus

By for CAES News

Back in January when she heard COVID-19 had been identified, Malak Esseili stopped taking her children along on trips to the grocery store. She also called her sisters and told them to begin wearing infinity scarfs they could easily use as makeshift masks while in public.

As an assistant professor of food virology at the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Esseili has been focused on studying the microbial ecology of human viral pathogens (such as human noroviruses), and now her work includes the emerging viral pathogen SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

Esseili came to UGA in March 2019 after eight years with the Food Animal Health Research Program at The Ohio State University (OSU) where she studied with Qiuhong Wang and OSU Distinguished Research Professor Linda Saif, who has conducted research on coronaviruses and other zoonotic viruses for decades.

While COVID-19 is a new — or novel — virus, coronaviruses are not new. Named for the crown-like spikes on their surface, human coronaviruses were first identified in the late 1960s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are seven coronaviruses that can infect humans. They include Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), severe acute respiratory syndrome-CoV and the new SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

There are also coronaviruses that affect animals, including bovines, poultry, cats, dogs and other animals.

“Before 2002, animal coronaviruses were a big concern for veterinarians,” Esseili said. “One hit the swine industry in 2013 and caused high mortality in piglets.”

While she was at OSU, Esseili worked with a team trying to develop a vaccine for the 2013 swine coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are all shaped the same, she said, but they can behave differently within a particular host and in terms of environmental stability and inactivation.

“These viruses are not wimpy and can survive for days to weeks in the environment, depending on the particular viral strain, temperature, humidity and what they land on,” she said. “Fortunately, they are susceptible to certain disinfectants, such as 70% ethanol and bleach, when used as instructed on the label.”

As someone who works very closely with viruses in her research program, Esseili urges the public to take the current pandemic situation seriously.

“This is a new virus. We don’t have preexisting immunity to it, and we don’t know the minimum infectious dose,” she said. “What is more problematic than the other severe human coronaviruses (SARS) is that people can be infectious (with COVID-19) before symptoms appear or while symptoms are mild, as the virus was recently shown to replicate also in the throat. This means the infectious virus can easily transmit between people when coughing, sneezing or just talking,” she said.  

Esseili urges people to be vigilant and continue to check current guidelines from the CDC.

“As our knowledge of the virus evolves, these guidelines may evolve,” she said.

COVID-19 has caused significant impacts on people’s health and on the economy including the food industry, which has witnessed closures due to COVID-19 illnesses in food workers. Esseili’s research at UGA is focused on researching effective control approaches and addressing critical questions to help the industry fight this disease.

Esseili presented an overview of coronaviruses during the UGA Center for Food Safety’s annual meeting held early in March and co-led a question-and-answer session alongside CDC experts to address COVID-19 questions from the industry. 

“These industries are not only vital to the local economy in Georgia, but they also contribute to food security, which is crucial to maintain a healthy population,” she said.

For more information on the UGA Center for Food Safety, go to cfs.caes.uga.edu.

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