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By Pam Burke 

Montana lab in forefront of COVID-19 research


March 27, 2020

A research laboratory in Hamilton, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, is a key part of the National Institutes of Health’s team of facilities that are studying the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Described by the National Institutes of Health as a state-of-the-art biomedical facility, Rocky Mountain Laboratories was established in 1928 and has been instrumental in studying many diseases, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Q fever and Lyme disease, which the laboratories’ website says were names in tribute to the labs’ former scientists who discovered the microbes causing the illnesses.

As the lead agency for the U.S. government, National Institutes of Health, with its 27 laboratories and centers, is responsible for biomedical and public health research and is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Because Rocky Mountain focuses on the infectious disease threats of the day, its researchers have been studying the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The name coronavirus applies to a family viruses and the particular coronavirus at the heart of the pandemic is a novel, or new, strain that has been labeled SARS-CoV-2, for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.

An NIH report says that Rocky Mountain Laboratories has been comparing how environment, or immediate surroundings, affects both SARS-CoV-2 and the original SARS virus, called SARS-CoV-1, which causes the SARS disease that emerged in 2002 and 2003.

SARS-CoV-1 is the virus that is most closely related to SARS-CoV-2, the report says, so the research is intended to shed light on why COVID-19 has develop into a significantly larger outbreak than SARS, which only infected a little more than 8,000 people and hasn’t been detected since 2004.

Rocky Mountain Labs’ findings were part of a larger study that included NIH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, University of California Los Angeles and Princeton University scientists. The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine and shared with fellow researchers.

The NIH reports says that the studies showed SARS-CoV-2 “was detectable in aerosols for up to three hours, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.”

In other words, the research suggests people can become infected with COVID-19 after getting viruses — that are on surfaces, including hands, and in tiny droplets called aerosols that hang in the air after, say, after a cough — into their eyes, nose and mouth.

CDC guidelines have stressed social distancing, and people have been warned to keep a 6-foot distance between them and not touch their faces, among other warnings including to cover coughs with a tissue that is disposed of immediately, to wash hands repeatedly and to disinfect surfaces.

The NIH reports says that scientists made note of two key points in the study addressing the question of why, if the two coronaviruses are so similar, is COVID-19 spreading so much easier.

Their first point, the report said, was that it looks like people with COVID-19 are spreading the disease before they show symptoms and realize they are infected with SARS-CoV-2.

The second point was that “most secondary cases of virus transmission of SARS-CoV-2 appear to be occurring in community settings rather than health care settings,” adding, however, that the stability of SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces, and even aerosols in the air, is what probably contributes to the transmission in health care settings.

Like clinics across the nation addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Montana Health Care’s flu clinic, which triages patients who report symptoms related to COVID-19, has health care providers assess patients in an outdoor location with drive-up medical services in a parking lot on the NMHC campus. The outdoor location allows the aerosols to dissipate and limits the surfaces the virus can come in contact with.


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