COVID-19: Speed at which virus is spreading is shocking, says researcher

According to her, one of the reasons is presence of spike protein in the virus and its affinity to ACE2 receptors in human cells

March 27, 2020 02:03 am | Updated 02:03 am IST - CHENNAI

Pavithra Venkatagopalan

Pavithra Venkatagopalan

Chennaiite Pavithra Venkatagopalan, who holds a Ph.D. from Arizona State University (ASU) in the U.S., where her research focused on coronaviruses, was someone who was never active on social media.

“I took my privacy seriously and all my social media accounts have stringent privacy settings,” she says. However, today, her interviews busting misconceptions and highlighting preventive measures about COVID-19 have become popular in Tamil Nadu on messaging and social media platforms.

Interactive map of confirmed coronavirus cases in India

She says the misinformation that were getting virally circulated forced her to speak out on COVID-19. “People were drinking cow urine. It is one thing to consume whatever one wants to, but it is extremely absurd to claim that it prevents a disease,” she says.

Her first talk was at the meeting of a Rotary Club chapter she is part of. Her father, who saw her presentation, asked her to do the same for his college alumni group. A person, who attended that talk, in turn made her speak at a meeting organised by the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF).

The video of her talk at TNSF was noticed by few journalists and calls from the media asking her to talk about the pandemic has not stopped ever since.

Watch | COVID-19: Dos and don'ts from the Health Ministry

Ms. Pavithra, a B.Tech graduate in Biotechnology from Alagappa College of Technology, is now the Director of Care Health Diagnostic Center. Admitting that she has always been a nerd, she says that it was her fascination with viruses that led her to pursue a Ph.D from the Biodesign Institute in ASU.

“Everyone studying viruses will have their own favourites and their reasons for the fascination. What attracted me to the family of coronaviruses, of which the present COVID-19-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus is a strain, was its ability to make RNAs without DNAs,” she says.

Explaining that while the synthesising of RNAs happened in most organisms through an enzyme called DNA-directed RNA polymerase, it happened in coronaviruses (similar to few other viruses) through RNA-dependent RNA polymerase since they are single-stranded RNA viruses that lacked DNAs.

Studying E proteins

Her specific research was in studying the E proteins, one of the three proteins along with the spike protein and the membrane protein that created the envelope of the virus. “My doctoral thesis was about tweaking the E proteins and studying its impact on the assembly of the virus and consequently how it reacts with the host cells,” she says. On whether she expected a strain of her favourite family of viruses to wreak havoc with a pandemic of this scale, she says never. “Those studying viruses always know the threat they pose to humanity. However, the speed at which SARS-CoV-2 is spreading, in comparison to the strains that caused SARS and MERS, is shocking,” she adds.

According to her, one of the reasons was the presence of the spike protein in the virus and its affinity to the ACE2 receptors in human cells. “Since there is a strong binding with the ACE2 receptors, the virus is able to infect and multiply even with a small number of them entering the human body,” she says.

Advocating strongly for the personal distancing, personal hygiene and respiratory hygiene measures recommended by the government, she expresses hope that these measures along with the research happening at a breathtaking speed about vaccine and antiviral medicines for COVID-19 will help us overcome this pandemic in the near future.

“In the roughly three months since the human transmission began, we have known far more about this virus than we knew about other viruses in such a short span of time,” she says.

Game changer

She adds that rapid testing kits, being developed by many companies including at least one in India, which can give instant results and thereby allowing the possibility of testing more people, can also be a game changer on how we tackle this disease.

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