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News article

11th June 2020

Students and staff from St Brendan’s recently attended an eye-opening lecture given by Dr. Tristan Cogan, a Senior Lecturer in Infectious Diseases, who has recently established a COVID-19 testing laboratory at the University of Bristol. 

Dr. Cogan hosted a virtual live STEM café, to inform local science students and teachers of the work his research team are undertaking, as they investigate this virus and work diligently in the battle to control the spread.

Dr. Jo Lewthwaite who teaches A-level Biology at St Brendan’s and co-ordinates the BioMed programme for aspiring doctors, dentists, veterinarians, medical researchers, etc. summarised some of the information from the event for us:

‘Dr. Cogan explained that Covid-19 is a zoonosis – which is a disease that can pass from animals to humans. Around 75% of human diseases originate in animals. Other famous examples include Ebola, Marburg, SARS and Avian Flu. It appears that for these diseases to be particularly harmful to humans they must survive for a long time outside the organisms they infect.

He then went on to describe how he is now a member of a multidisciplinary team working to investigate how long the virus can stay alive in the fluid droplets formed when people cough.

Dr Cogan presented the data which has been used to set the 2 metre social distancing rule. Unbelievably this is based on research carried out in 1934, and it is not certain if this distance is likely to prevent Covid-19 transmission. To investigate this, chemists within the team (Professor Jonathan Reid and Dr. Allen Haddrell) have developed a machine that can levitate the droplets. This will allow the viability of the virus within the droplets to be investigated under different environmental conditions. It is already known that ozone, ultraviolet light and high temperatures may affect viruses. So safe outdoor social distancing may be less than 2 metres.

Some other good news is that these zoonosis tend to mutate and become less harmful. How long this will take is not known. The 1918 Spanish flu led to 50 million deaths while now influenza is largely harmless. Scientists are already finding Covid-19 virus particles that have lost the spikes they use to infect lung cells so maybe this has already begun. This does present problems for vaccine development, as any vaccine will need to target other areas of the virus that remain unchanged when it mutates.

When questioned about easing of lockdown Dr. Cogan stated that the use of facemasks indoors will help and that his research will be investigating the use of disinfectants. One of the particular issues with Covid-19 is that people do not become very ill very quickly once infected and so remain mobile.’