Going Viral with COVID-19: Using Current Events in the Biotechnology Classroom

A comprehensive set of resources to help you talk to your students about the ongoing pandemic.

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Ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

Over the past few weeks, you’ve probably been inundated with news regarding the current viral pandemic affecting over 100 countries worldwide.  It’s a little scary, even to those of us who have seen similar outbreaks and understand the science.  Your students have likely seen the same news reports and may be curious to learn more.  That makes this the perfect time to teach your students about virology, epidemiology, and medical testing in the context of current events.

First, a few important definitions:

  • SARS-CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2: the name of the novel coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic.
  • COVID-19, or coronavirus disease 2019: this is the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, characterized by fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
  • Outbreak: a rapid increase in the number of cases of a disease at a specific time and place
  • Pandemic: an outbreak of a disease in many different geographic areas that affects a significant proportion of the population

SARS-CoV-2 is a novel coronavirus that has caused a worldwide outbreak of respiratory disease.  Coronaviruses have a single-stranded RNA genome wrapped in a helical capsid.  A membrane envelope surrounds the capsid.  The envelope is studded with proteins that help the virus infect cells.  By electron microscopy, the envelope proteins create a hazy halo around the virus particle. Scientists described them with the Latin word corona, which means “crown” or “halo”.

Coronaviruses are not rare.  Each year, experts estimate that they cause 15-30% of all common cold cases.  These symptoms are generally mild and include fever and sore throat.  Coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 spread person-to-person through liquid droplets that come out when you cough or sneeze.  To prevent infection, practice good hand-washing and avoid touching your face.

Sometimes a novel strain of the virus emerges that causes severe respiratory distress.  The first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in December 2019. Other serious coronavirus outbreaks include SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012.  According to the CDC, COVID-19 has been identified in over 100 locations worldwide.    Public health officials are currently working on strategies to identify infected individuals and to prevent the further spread of the virus.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. In severe cases, patients may have pneumonia, respiratory distress, and/or kidney failure.  Sadly, this infection can be fatal.  Treatment for COVID-19 includes rest, fluids, and over-the-counter cold medications.  Researchers are currently developing vaccines and anti-viral medications to combat infection.

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Symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the disease seen in the 2019–20 coronavirus outbreak, and is caused by the Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Mikael Häggström, MD, released under the Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license

If you are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, seek medical attention from your doctor.  They may test you for the virus.  There are two diagnostic assays to confirm COVID-19 infection – Reverse Transcription PCR (RT-PCR) and Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay.  RT-PCR tests for the presence for the viral genome, signifying active infection.  A positive test does not mean that a patient will become seriously ill; however, these diagnoses are important as they allow epidemiologists to trace the spread of COVID-19.  RT-PCR is currently in use by public health laboratories around the world to identify an active infection.  Once a patient has recovered, the viral genome can no longer be detected in their body, rendering the RT-PCR test ineffective.  Immunological tests are being developed to identify the presence of antibodies to COVID-19 in patients, signifying that a person had been previously infected.

There is a lot of information on the internet about the COVID-19 pandemic on the internet, some of which is intentionally misleading.  The best source of information will come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization.  We’ve done some research and curated the best articles, resources, and experiments that can be used in your teaching.

Video Resources:

Our scientists created a short video to introduce your students to COVID-19.  This short introductory video discusses the structure of coronaviruses, symptoms of disease, transmission, and testing.

This webinar will talk about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, how the virus affects our bodies, and resources we can use to teach our students about the pandemic.

Laboratory Resources:

Please note: These experiments are simulations of medical tests.  They do not include the SARS-CoV-2 virus, nor can they identify viral infection in patient samples.  If you are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, please contact your healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Infectious agents such as bacteria & viruses can spread rapidly through a population and cause widespread disease and death. In this experiment, your students will use colored solutions to simulate the spreading of a disease in the classroom.  This experiment is NGSS-aligned with MS-LS2.

EVT-086_media-1Using this model, your students will learn about coronavirus structure and life cycle and provides a good starting point to discuss the challenges that are caused by novel virus strains. It can also be used as an introduction to general virus structure for all levels of students.  Paired with our informational video, this is a great hands-on activity to send home with your students if you know school will be closed for a few days.

The virus responsible for COVID-19 infection, SARS-CoV-2, is a single-stranded RNA virus.  This means that the genome of the virus is RNA, not DNA, and therefore the virus cannot be detected by traditional PCR because PCR requires a DNA template. In order to detect the virus using PCR, Reverse Transcriptase (RT) is used to synthesize complementary DNA (cDNA) copies of the RNA genome. A small amount of the cDNA is mixed with Taq polymerase, dNTPs and primers for amplification by PCR. Because RT-PCR is extremely sensitive and can detect minute amounts of the virus, it is an ideal assay to detect active COVID-19 infections.  We’ve adapted our RT-PCR kit to be used as a simulation for SARS-CoV-2 testing so you can bring this assay to your classroom.

The virus responsible for COVID-19 infection, SARS-CoV-2, is a single-stranded RNA virus.  The virus does not integrate itself into the human genome during infection (like HIV).  Once the patient’s immune system has cleared the infection, no viral nucleic acid remains in the body.  However, the antibodies generated during the infection remain in the body after the patient has healed.  The Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay, or ELISA, can be used to detect the presence of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in patient samples.  By using this assay, healthcare professionals and researchers will be able to better calculate the number of individuals affected by this disease.  We’ve adapted one of our experiments to model testing for anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies by ELISA.

Scientific Readings and Lesson Plans:

From SARS to MERS, it is important to remind ourselves what was learned from studies of the previous outbreak strains to prevent direct duplication of past work and build more quickly toward therapeutic endpoints against SARS-CoV-2 and future strains. To this end, the editors at JBC present a retrospective collection of coronavirus content, building from the first outbreaks in 2003.

NPR reporters asked children what they wanted to know about the coronavirus outbreak.  Their answers have been addressed as a three-minute news story and a printable zine.  Couple these with one of our hands-on experiments and you have a complete lesson!

This article from NBC News compares the spread of COVID-19 to previous coronavirus disease epidemics caused by SARS and MERS.

Looking for a lesson plan that combines current events, biology, and scientific ethics?  This blog post from the NSTA outlines a lesson that encourages students to evaluate scientific information in media and generate questions about the current viral outbreak.

This article from Trends in Microbiology discusses the origins of human coronaviruses, the evolution of their genomes, and how animal viruses change before making the jump to humans.  This article also includes a video explaining the evolution of the viral genomes.

An infectious disease expert writes about the ways that viruses like COVID-19 spread, and how humans can take actions to manage and prevent the spread of disease.  This includes ways to slow the spread of disease so as to not overwhelm the healthcare system.

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