Dawn Wooley, Ph.D., a virologist and professor of neuroscience, cell biology and physiology at Wright State University, has extensive experience studying viruses. It’s one reason that her virology course this spring has become so popular with students. She provides informative, up-to-date lectures on the changing dynamics of the coronavirus as part of the course.
Wooley is tracking the spread of COVID-19 in the class. Her efforts are similar to others she has led during her career as a prolific virologist documenting the movements of past sicknesses, such as SARS in Asia and MERS in Saudi Arabia.
“Virology is a specialized subject matter. Microbiology covers all microbes, but virology is a specialization of microbiology that not many people are trained in,” Wooley said. “I was classically trained in virology at Harvard, and I studied microbiology at Penn State.”
The course is unique because Wooley designs it differently each year. With the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not surprising that the virus has become the focal point of instruction this spring.
The changing developments day to day are providing her students with a rare opportunity to study a pandemic in real time. The nature of COVID-19, a RNA virus that is capable of mutating, makes it challenging to keep up.
“We get deeper into the subject matter. In a general microbiology course, we would mention viruses,” Wooley said. “In this course, we are getting into the taxonomy, structure, methods of study and much more.”
Wooley has explained that COVID-19 fits into a family of coronaviruses. Scientists have studied them for decades and successfully isolated many of them. Wooley lectures on the immune responses against these viruses, the related coronaviruses (SARS and MERS) and the lethality and transmissibility of them.
“This new coronavirus is 79 percent similar to the original SARS and 50 percent similar to MERS,” Wooley said. “It was initially called novel coronavirus, but they have sequenced it and found similarities to SARS. The viral species is now called SARS-CoV-2.”
Wooley notes that there are many similarities between the recent pandemic and the 1918 influenza pandemic. It had begun with a zoonotic transmission from an avian species to humans. “When they cross species, they are initially very aggressive,” she said.
Wooley has had to weed out misinformation so that she can present the most relevant findings to her students, who are largely undergraduates. In all, the class has about 60 students.
She looks for reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization. Wooley is careful to choose articles that have been validated by others in the scientific community. That’s the scientific method at work.
“Epidemiology studies disease patterns when new viruses come along. Often funding organizations shift priorities to the new virus. It’s very expensive to study these viruses, with the equipment and reagents that are needed,” Wooley said. “I’m hopeful that there may be a vaccine, but there are many challenges. One is that we don’t know how strong the immune response will be. Another aspect is the memory response of the immune system.”