Coronavirus impacts Butler study abroad programs, focus of research on campus

A Butler professor’s lab researches coronavirus. Photo courtesy of butler.edu.

FRANCIE WILSON | STAFF REPORTER | fwilson@butler.edu 

All students who visit Butler Health Services will now be screened for the coronavirus, according to an email announcement made by Butler University on Jan. 31. 

The university also announced in the email that they would be suspending all travel to and from China for faculty, staff and students. No students are currently studying abroad in China, nor did any study abroad there last semester. 

There have not been any reported cases of the coronavirus at Butler or in Indiana, but the university is taking precautions against the virus.

Study Abroad 

Butler’s temporary travel ban to China might impact the Butler in Asia summer program, where students travel to three different locations in Asia to complete a six-week internship, including Shanghai, China. 

Jill McKinney, the director of global engagement, said in an email to The Butler Collegian, with her knowledge she does not believe the program will be impacted.

As of right now, McKinney said currently none of Butler’s study abroad programs have been affected by the coronavirus nor has the university received any international students from infected areas. 

At this time, I do not anticipate the coronavirus to impact study abroad any more than it has,” McKinney said in the email. “The virus will eventually peak and subside, as others before have.” 

Although it is unclear what the future holds for both the Butler in Asia program and the coronavirus, McKinney hopes to have more answers about the Butler in Asia program by March. McKinney also said faculty and staff have been following the situation closely.

Research Lab 

Many students may not have heard of the coronavirus before it began making international news, but one Butler professor has been working with a different strain of the virus since doing doctorate work at Vanderbilt University in 2008. 

Christopher Stobart, assistant professor of biological sciences, along with a group of undergraduate researchers, have been studying the respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, and mouse hepatitis virus, MHV. 

RSV is a virus that infects humans, and Stobart said RSV is the number one cause of deaths in infants under age one by a virus. MHV, the other virus studied, is a mouse coronavirus. 

“Our lab’s goal is to study respiratory viruses which are either directly or indirectly related to human disease,” Stobart said. “And our research on these viruses focuses on how they replicate and how stable they are.” 

Although MHV is only found in mice, it is still similar to the human coronaviruses that occured in the past and the current coronavirus.

Stobart said MHV is the most studied strain of coronavirus that does not infect humans and it is similar to the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Although, he said it is hard to pinpoint how similar they are. 

Although MHV and coronavirus are different strains of virus, they have many similarities in their genes, proteins and the organization of their genomes. The main difference between MHV and coronavirus is on a sequence level, which slightly changes their structure. This small structural change is what makes MHV infect mice while the coronavirus infects humans. 

There have been three coronaviruses since 2002, including the current coronavirus that originated in Wuhan. The first of which was SARS in 2002, followed by MERS in 2012. Both the MERS and SARS viruses originated in bats and then jumped to a host animal, who in turn infected humans. It is expected that the same happened for the current coronavirus. Bats are known to have at least 50 different strains of coronavirus, Stobart said. 

Stobart said the goal of their research is not to create a vaccine, but instead the research aims to  find a drug or therapeutic that could be given to someone infected with the virus. 

A drug or therapeutic would act similarly to how Tamiflu is prescribed to patients with the flu, rather than given as a preventative measure. 

Through their MHV research, Stobart and the undergraduate students involved in his lab have been able to discover a new area of interest in one of the proteins found in the virus.

The lab plans on publishing a scientific paper in the next three to six months, where they can share their findings with the scientific community. Stobart and his lab believe that what they learned about the region will be important for future studies, as a region of the protein has not been studied in the past.

Molly Roe, a sophomore biology major who works on the RSV portion of the lab, has been working with MHV in her molecular virology lab for Stobart’s molecular virology class.  

“Dr. Stobart’s really cool phrase that kind of drives most of our projects is, ‘If you want to understand how something works, break it and then see how it fixes itself,’” Roe said. 

Benjamin Nick, a senior biology and chemistry major, works in the lab on the MHV project.

“It’s almost like a pyramid when you think about it, lots of people at the bottom who are making these teeny tiny findings and eventually you get to the point of it,” Nick said. “The apex being the creation of a vaccine or a treatment or therapeutic of some sort.” 

Even with the Butler lab publishing their findings in the next three to six months, there are still many steps in the process of finding a drug or therapeutic that would be successful. Due to the length of time it would take for a drug to be developed and tested, it is possible that this coronavirus will no longer be of concern. 

Monsi Pandya, a senior biology and Spanish major and member of the MHV lab, said it has been interesting to hear about the coronavirus outside of the lab. 

“When I first saw coronaviruses on the news I was like ‘what?’ because what we’ve learned in lab so far is there are not that many people doing research on like the specific part of the protein that we’re studying,” Pandya said. “So it was crazy to hear that something similar was on the news.” 

Prevention 

Although there are currently no known cases of the coronavirus in Indiana and all the known cases in the United States are receiving treatment, there are still a number of preventative measures that can be taken. 

“Don’t be alarmed right now about this coronavirus, just keep up to date on the news and use normal good health safety practices and you should be able to avoid coming down with the human coronavirus, or flu or any other virus for that matter,” Stobart said. 

The recommendations for flu prevention and coronavirus prevention are similar. The CDC recommends staying away from those infected, avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth, staying away from others when you are sick, washing hands and covering your nose and mouth when coughing. 

Currently, getting the flu is a greater risk in Indiana, and by washing hands alongside other habits, students can prevent its spread on campus. 

The university provided free flu shots in the fall, with the hopes of preventing flu outbreaks on campus. It is recommended that students receive a flu shot before flu season since it takes a couple of weeks for the vaccine to be effective. 

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