Coronavirus: why this time it’s different

©CDC by Unsplash

How is your research relevant to the current coronavirus epidemic?

Charlotte Uetrecht: What we do is basic research to fundamentally understand how the coronaviruses function. Any insights that we gain could be used in the work on the new outbreak strain. In our lab, we are already looking at some of the proteins of the new virus to potentially transfer our own results to the work on the new virus strain. Other virologists at our Institute are more directly involved in the response to COVID-19.

Charlotte Uetrecht (left) © HPI/Gisela Köhler. Philippe Lemey (right) © P. Lemey

What’s unique about this COVID-19 epidemic?

CU: The viruses adapt and this adaptation results in a faster spread, better cell entry, better replication, and in many cases this also goes hand in hand with a reduction in the fatality rate. Viruses want to be reproduced. If a virus kills its host too quickly, its reproduction ends and this is not advantageous for a pathogen. Most human coronaviruses were not particularly dangerous and were considered uninteresting. Until SARS in 2003, people looking into coronaviruses had a hard time getting funding, it was simply not considered interesting or relevant. That’s the reason why we know so little about them.

How can we be better equipped to deal with challenges like coronavirus?

PL: We need a much better understanding of the transmission dynamics and evolution of viruses in general. This is certainly also the case for coronaviruses. It is difficult to assess the risk of the emergence of such viruses if we do not have a good understanding of how they circulate in different animals and environments. Understanding how an animal virus jumps the species boundaries and ends up in humans will help us prepare for future epidemics. Gaining insight into what viruses are circulating in the animal population, will enable us to better understand which of these viruses may emerge in humans and which mutations are required for this to happen. Although current vaccine developments may be specific for COVID-19, the knowledge that we gain in developing these vaccines might help us produce vaccines faster during a future emergency.

Coronaviruses have been with us forever. What makes some of them deadly?

PL: It is likely that you contracted a coronavirus at some point in your life, probably in early childhood. A number of human coronaviruses cause the common cold. They circulate in human population and are not particularly dangerous. It’s not easy to answer what sets these common-cold viruses apart from more dangerous ones like SARS, MERS or COVID-19. But it basically comes down to how much damage a virus does during replication in human cells.

What brought you to this line of research?

PL: I’ve always been fascinated by creatures we can’t see with the naked eye but that nonetheless can have such an impact on us. I entered the field when bioinformatics was on the rise and was intrigued by the possibility of using computational tools to study their genomes, including reconstructing their evolutionary history. I got a taste of this in a short course during my master thesis project and pursued that interest ever since.

More information:


Dr Charlotte Uetrecht heads the junior research group Dynamics of Viral Structures at the Heinrich Pette Institute — Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology in Hamburg, Germany. With her ERC-funded research she aims to understand how coronaviruses produce new viral particles, how they replicate and function. To do so Dr Uetrecht and her team develop new methods and instruments to look in more detail at the viral structures and their changes, using mass spectrometry.



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