ARVO 2022 – History and Biology of Coronaviruses

Archana A Nair, MD MS
Vitreoretinal Fellow
Vanderbilt Eye Institute

The 2022 ARVO meeting featured a wide array of groundbreaking ophthalmic research and innovation. This meeting was extra special as it was the first time that this community was able to celebrate in person in two years.

Dr. Susan Weiss, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a rousing and timely talk titled “History and Biology of Coronaviruses: The Story Behind COVID-19.”

After completing her doctoral thesis at Harvard University on Newcastle disease, Dr. Weiss began researching coronaviruses during her postdoctoral research at the University of California San Francisco, where little was known about this virus at the time.

Dr. Weiss began her talk discussing her early days of coronavirus research in the 1960s and ’70s. There was a small group of people studying the virus and its basic biology. Coronavirus gained more attention after the first outbreak of SARS in the 2000s. Shortly thereafter, bats were identified as the source of the virus. Since that time, three additional outbreaks have occurred: HKU1, MERS, and most recently SARS-COV2. Dr. Weiss debunked a conspiracy theory that has developed in the most recent pandemic: the virus is manmade. She stated multiple reasons this theory isn’t true: similar viruses are found in bats, SARS-COV2 does not resemble any other virus and therefore there is no template to create the virus, and similar viral elements were identified in the Hunan market.

She continued to captivate the audience discussing the therapeutic strategies for SARS-COV2. Early therapies, such as chloroquine, were aimed at the viral entry into the cell, but proved to be ineffective due to the multiple modalities of viral entry. Her current research has been on targeting replicase proteins. Similar technology has been utilized in current on-market therapies such as Moinupiravir and Paxlovid. However, mutated variants of the virus have emerged with increased receptor binding, immune escape, and increased viral spread as seen in subsequent waves of viral variants. She also discussed her research collaboration with Dr. Noem Cohen, looking to better understand the exact mechanism by which the viruses become more cytopathic. As the pandemic continues, she posed several questions for the audience to think about. (1) Will variants continue to emerge or will they reach an optimal fitness and stop?  (2) Vaccine breakthroughs are more common in delta and omicron variant infections, will we get vaccine resistant variants? (3) Will Sars-2 attenuate as we believe for other previous common Cov2? Is omicron more like a common virus? These questions are still yet to be answered.

The final portion of her address discussed the host immune response to coronavirus. This is an area of great area of focus for her lab and helps to answer many of the clinical questions of how Covid-19 affects our patients. Her multiple collaborators, including Dr. Tony Fehr and Dr. Robert Silverman, were highlighted in her talk. These individuals have helped identify the dsRNA binding site which makes Sars-COV-2 less lethal than other coronaviruses such as MERS.

There is a lot that the community has learned about Sars-CoV-2. Dr. Weiss’s research has played a pivotal role in the understanding of this viral family. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and take new forms, Dr. Weiss’s work will continue to be instrumental in the prevention and treatment of this disease. It was an honor to have Dr. Susan Weiss give the ARVO/Alcon Keynote address, and we look forward to her future discoveries and insights into coronaviruses.