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U of U receives coronavirus grant

The University of Utah is receiving a nearly $200,000 grant to test coronavirus particles against temperature and humidity. (Photo: Jordan Allred / Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Do seasons affect how COVID-19 spreads? The University of Utah is receiving a coronavirus grant in hopes of finding an answer.

Coronavirus grant

This is the first COVID-19-related grant the university has received. The Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant comes from The National Science Foundation. Specifically it’s going to Michael Vershinin and Saveez Saffarian of the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy.

They will be creating synthetic coronavirus particles without a genome, which makes the virus incapable of infection. At that point, they can test how the structure of the coronavirus withstands changes in humidity and temperature. Additionally, they’ll be monitoring at what conditions the virus falls apart.

What’s next?

The hope is to better understand how the virus behaves in changing climate and what to expect as summer draws closer.

“We’re making a faithful replica of the virus packaging that holds everything together. The idea is to figure out what makes this virus fall apart, what makes it tick, what makes it die,” says Vershinin, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and co-principal investigator of the grant. “This is not a vaccine. It’s won’t solve the crisis, but it will hopefully inform policy decisions going forward.”

The National Science Foundation is able to quickly review proposals in response to research on urgent issues, like a global pandemic, thanks to RAPID funding.

“This application of sophisticated physics instruments and methods to understand how the 2019 coronavirus will behave as the weather changes is a clear example of how our investment in basic research years later prepares us for a response to a crisis that impacts not only our society, but also the whole world,” said Krastan Blagoev, program director in The National Science Foundation’s Division of Physics.

According to the University’s website, Vershinin’s lab’s specialty is using optical tweezers.

“It’s often compared with the tractor beam from ‘Star Trek.’ You just use light to reach in and apply force to manipulate things,” he explains.

Saffarian’s lab focuses on viruses that, like coronavirus, contain RNA strands.