Biology Professor Anticipated Coronaviruses Would Eventually Impact Humans

Monday, April 13, 2020
Jennifer O'Connor teaching in a classroom with students looking at their computers.

Biology professor Jennifer O’Connor specializes in examining the emergence of infectious disease through viruses, and predicted that a coronavirus could impact human and animal populations.

“Why should we fund coronaviruses? They don’t cause any significant human disease.”

Jennifer O’Connor encountered this question from a member of a committee considering her graduate school plans to study the microscopic world of virology. In particular, she sought to examine how a variety of infectious diseases could threaten animal and human life.

The young scientist explained to the skeptical panelist that coronaviruses were responsible for devastating diseases that incurred high mortalities within a wide variety of animals, and it was only a matter of time before a severe coronavirus emerged in the human population.

That intellectual exchange occurred in the early 1990s.

“Unfortunately, I predicted it,” says O’Connor, a biology professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. “Virologists expect viruses to emerge in human populations on a regular basis.”

Increased human population, deforestation and urbanization—placing animal and human habitats in close proximity—are contributing factors to the emergence of viral diseases, according to O’Connor. Other contributors are increased trade and changes in worldwide travel patterns.

Past and present deadly viruses impacting the world have been Ebola, West Nile, Nipah, Sin Nombre, SARS and MERS.

“We received adequate warning, as numerous viruses have emerged in the human population,” O’Connor says. “We have seen on a smaller scale the impact of those infections on human health and the precautions that must be taken to prevent the spread of those diseases. The steps to contain this pandemic are necessary, yet they have an enormous impact on people beyond the disease itself: employment, businesses, food supplies, mental health.”

Like the SARS and MERS coronaviruses, the current COVID-19 pandemic “jumped” from an animal into the human population, according to O’Connor. She says this pandemic coronavirus was different in that it emerged better suited to infect and transmit in humans.

“This virus is like a stealth bomber sneaking into communities. I am interested to find out how many inapparent or mild infections occurred during this pandemic. In a study on the travelers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, over 3,000 individuals were tested for COVID 19 and 634 tested positive. Of those that tested positive, 328 individuals (approximately 50 percent) showed no symptoms or had yet to develop symptoms. I hypothesize that the individuals who have no idea that they are infected have contributed to the spread of this virus.”

Later, she notes “One challenge is the fact that (COVID-19) is transmitted via respiratory droplets more readily than influenza, but less readily than measles. It is also challenging that this is a new virus that scientists have never seen. Scientists are working to study and learn about this virus as fast as possible, but we cannot keep pace with this virus.”

For her doctoral thesis at University of Tennessee, O’Connor studied coronaviruses affecting agricultural populations. Her research efforts have continued at Rose-Hulman, with students examining the emergence of other viral diseases and identifying undiscovered viruses among amphibian and bee populations. This year, O’Connor mentored junior biology major Elisa Weber in a study of virus evolution by examining the Sindbis virus as it replicates in either mammalian or mosquito cells.

Such research is important as scientists and data scientists throughout the world work to find the elements of a possible vaccine and medicines to treat COVID-19 patients, and prevent the continuing evolution of the virus.

“What has impressed me is how well multiple disciplines in science and math have worked together,” O’Connor says. “The computer models created to predict possible outcomes of the pandemic were useful to virologists who were trying to inform public policy. I do think that social distancing and stay at home orders have blunted the predicted outcome. One positive outcome I would like to see from this pandemic is for everyone to continue to consider the health and well-being of others during seasonal flu outbreaks. Every year, we have infectious diseases that take human lives.”