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University Physicists Awarded Grant For Coronavirus Research

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Two physicists at the University of Utah have joined a growing group of scientists tackling critical questions about the novel coronavirus.

They quickly changed the focus of their research in the last two weeks to divert their efforts toward how changing seasons will affect the spread of the virus.

Michael Vershinin and Saveez Saffarian, both physicists at the university, said they could not ignore the coronavirus pandemic and pivoted to work on the world’s largest problem.

“Naturally, your thoughts turn to the problem at hand,” said Vershinin.

The scientists received the university’s first COVID-19-related research grant Wednesday. There’s so much unknown about the coronavirus that the researchers stopped what they were working on to focus on the coronavirus.

The National Science Foundation liked their research proposal, and gave them a nearly $200,000 grant.

“Low and behold, we are now working on it full-time,” said Vershinin.

They wanted to find out how the coronavirus responds to temperature and humidity.

“Which is important for understanding how it responds to climate, and partly how it responds to the micro climate in buildings,” said Vershinin.

They will create a virus-like particle in the lab that looks identical to the coronavirus, but does not package the viral genome. So, it’s not infectious.

“We can make the virus in my lab without actually creating major problems for handling the virus,” said Saffarian.

The results should help public health officials better understand how the virus responds in different environmental conditions.
The researchers said they typically wait months for grants. This one came together with unprecedented speed. They were part of an urgent response to the novel coronavirus pandemic from scientists around the world.

“From the time of the idea to the time that the money was received in the lab, which was (Wednesday), took about 10 days,” said Saffarian.

They were also seeing unprecedented cooperation within the university to work on the problem.

“I know of a couple of groups that are immediately organizing and trying to do something in various aspects of the virus,” said Saffarian.

The cooperation from commercial labs has also been unprecedented.

“For us, it’s just an unbelievable collaborative effort of everybody trying to pitch in the best they can, and break down walls, and go after this the fastest possible way,“ said Saffarian.

They were on a teleconference call Thursday morning with a team in Munich, Germany, and a team in Washington.

“There is so much cross-talk and cross germination of ideas,” said Saffarian.

Many talented people have turned their focus to the pandemic right now, they said. Each day, they hear from students and colleagues who want to help with their work, or expand on what they’re doing.

“Given how many people are working on it, and how cooperatively people are working, and how fast then I think there is that is a hopeful sign,“ said Vershinin.


Coronavirus Resources

How Do I Prevent It?

The CDC has some simple recommendations, most of which are the same for preventing other respiratory illnesses or the flu:

  • Avoid close contact with people who may be sick
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Always wash your hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

The CDC does not recommend wearing a face mask respirator to protect yourself from coronavirus unless a healthcare professional recommends it.

How To Get Help

If you’re worried you may have COVID-19, you can contact the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707 to speak to trained healthcare professionals. You can also use telehealth service through your healthcare providers.

Additional Resources

If  you see evidence of PRICE GOUGING, the Utah Attorney General’s Office wants you to report it. Common items in question include toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer, certain household cleaners, and even cold medicine and baby formula. Authorities are asking anyone who sees price gouging to report it to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601 or 800-721-7233. The division can also be reached by email at consumerprotection@utah.gov.

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