More Achievements Unknown: CORONAVIRUSES

In our last column, we linked 1960s breakthroughs in genetics to President Trump‘s Operation Warp Speed  that, as I write this column, is delivering a vaccine developed in record time to the American people. But what about this idea of a bug called “COVID-19?”  Is this somehow connected to the 1960s?

Yup. In a big way.

Now, if we only knew the 1960s for the classic themes – i.e., Vietnam, civil rights, the Counterculture, LSD, and feminism – AS MOST PEOPLE ONLY DO – we’d ask “what are you talking about?” Pandemic? Wuhan virus? A connection to the 1960s?

We couldn’t imagine that diligent researchers in the years represented in this Project uncovered and labelled the coronavirus on both sides of the Atlantic. We wouldn’t know the 1960s era established a framework for the study of viruses (a word which root ominously means “venom”) that benefits us today. And we’d certainly would miss that this strange new word – “coronavirus” – was even coined in the 1960s !

More achievement on a big level – generally unknown because of when it took place !!


Let’s draw the link.

Our story begins with a rash of infections in the 1930s and 1940s that first concerned veterinarians in the Midwest. Starting with chickens, a range of animals from dogs and cats and horses to camels, rodents, and birds came down with various respiratory maladies (“IBV” – infectious bronchitis virus) and even brain maladies caused by viruses of various types. And with the help of the electron microscope, researchers by 1950 had even discovered the virus that caused a form of hepatitis in mice. Over the next decade or so, we would find out these viruses were actually related to one another.

Shortly after World War II, British and American scientists looking for the cause of the common cold had identified several culprits, such as the influenza virus, the adenovirus, and rhinovirus. But in 1960-61, boys in an English boarding school supplied surprising throat swab samples to David Tyrrell (d. 2005) and his team at the Common Cold Research Unit at Salisbury. Several samples emerged that were unrelated to any known virus of the respiratory tract they had seen. These samples were labeled collectively as “B814,” and described in the British Medical Journal in 1965.

Separately, American researchers Dorothy Hamre (d. 1989) and John Procknow in 1962 studied respiratory tract infection samples of sick University of Chicago students. They too cultured and described a “novel” cold-producing virus, and designated theirs “229E,” and published results in Proceedings of the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine in 1966.

In 1967 Scottish virologist and electron microscopy pioneer, June Almeida (d. 2007) in collaboration with Tyrrell’s group, compared the structures of B814, 229E, and the pathogens that caused so many animal respiratory ailments, the IBV.  The three were seen to be morphological cousins, sharing a common shape with spikes jutting out from the main structure. That same year, a group at NIH associated with a Dr. Ken McIntosh isolated still a fourth member of these new viruses, and named it OC43 (“organ culture 43”) with similar biology and spiky appearance.

Dr. June Almeida w/Phillips electron microscope, who in 1967 also produced the first visualization of the rubella virus

These previously unrecognized viruses in HUMANS needed a name. Based on the viruses’ halo and crown-like surface resembling the Sun’s outer layer, Tyrrell submitted the name of “coronavirus” to the International Committee for the Nomenclature of Viruses (ICNV, est. 1966) which accepted the name in 1971. This was the same year the virologist David Baltimore set up the system that orders viruses by the behavior of their mRNA (discovered in 1961), a system that bears his name.

Optimism followed in the early 1970s because it seemed the new entry of “coronaviruses” gave researchers even more therapeutic targets than they already had for managing the viruses that caused the bothersome but benign “common cold.”

This was true, until 2002.

That year, people realized the usually mild “coronaviruses” could also be uncommonly virulent, uncommonly deadly. That year, severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) swept out of Yunnan province in China connected to palm civets and horseshoe bats, and infected nearly 9,000 people with 9% mortality.

In 2012 the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) emerged through camels near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with a mortality rate of over 30%, and become known colloquially as “The Camel Flu.”

In 2019, a city 500 miles west of Shanghai – WUHAN – spawned the third coronavirus of this unholy trinity – SARS -CoV-2, this time through pangolins and bats. So far it is the most widespread, the most disruptive, and the least fatal.

As of this writing, there are 45 species of the virus genus named in 1968 for its “crown” appearance like photographed above. What once drew the attention of only animal doctors interested people doctors now. This turn took place in the 1960s. Recapped:

  • Viruses associated with chickens and mice were discovered to have a molecular kinship to pathogens that affect humans too. They were zoonotic – jumped from animals to people – as has the current bug.
  • 1960s scientists found these viruses were new, or “novel” – as the WHO says today.
  • 1960s era researchers identified these as RNA-based viruses which opened the door to a vaccine in 2020.
  • 1960s categorized coronaviruses according to a genetic / RNA classification system (I-VII) created by a man named Baltimore – born in New York and working in California.


For all this, what researchers like Hamre, McIntosh, and Tyrrell did not know was how unpredictable and lethal these coronaviruses would be. This was a story for another decade, but they set the table.

An interesting tale: so relevant, so timely; and like all history, essential to understanding why the present looks the way it does.

As the holidays approach (Cold season!), we are blessed to acknowledge the 1960s researchers upon whose achievements researchers of today can build.

We’re off December 24 (Merry Christmas)
See you January 7.


December 10, 2020


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