Using science to safeguard against the coronavirus

With coronavirus disease (COVID-19) affecting university campuses, impacting travel and influencing financial market activity, there is no shortage of news coverage devoted to the pandemic. Fortunately, The University of Tulsa has an on-campus expert who knows the ins and outs of the virus world and is prepared to share the facts.

Akhtar Ali, professor of virology
Akhtar Ali, professor of virology

Akhtar Ali is a professor of virology in the College of Engineering & Natural Sciences and is an expert on the evolution of viruses. Regarding coronavirus, Ali said the threat is serious and should not be taken lightly, but there are several steps that can minimize risk.

He emphasized the historical nature of the virus: “This is a novel emerging coronavirus with a unique mutation. But, there have been coronavirus outbreaks in the past, including as recently as February 2003, which was the SARS-CoV.”

What has history taught us? For Ali, previous strains of the coronavirus combined with his knowledge of virology offer answers to lingering questions.

“From what I’ve heard in the media, people are talking about how to minimize the spread,” he explained. “As humans, we are always working, traveling and interacting with each other, so it’s going to be nearly impossible to completely stop a spread. With a virus like this, if one infected person on a plane sneezes into the air, then every person on the plane is exposed to the virus and may become infected. Yes, it’s important to wash your hands, but there are other equally important safety precautions that need to be followed.”

Ali said the internal preparation for the coronavirus is just as important as the external. Sometimes, even when exposed to the virus, a strong immune system can fight it off before it ever takes hold.

“This virus infects the lower respiratory tract, particularly people who have weakened immune systems,” he said. “This includes children younger than 5, people older than about 60 or people with a pre-existing condition. These are the people most vulnerable.”

5 Steps for Preparing the Immune System to Fight Coronavirus

To Ali, people shouldn’t fear the coronavirus. Instead, they should prepare their bodies to fight it in case of exposure. To make sure our immune systems are in good shape, he shared five simple steps to follow, in addition to frequent handwashing.

1. Drink water. The coronavirus family has different receptors than other virus strains, so it attacks the lungs. That said, if the virus is settling in the throat before it gets to the lungs, water can flush it to the stomach, where the highly acidic environment and enzymes could kill it. It might never make it to the lungs.
2. Eat healthy food. According to Ali, a healthy diet can boost the immune system. Foods with protein and vitamin C are important, as are other proper nutrients. His affordable, effective suggestions include bananas, apples, oranges and boiled eggs.
3. Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep weakens the immune system; staying well-rested helps your body fight infection, if need be.
4. Minimize contact. If travel is unnecessary, Ali advises against it. “It’s the individual’s decision, but there is a big risk,” he said.
5. Don’t stress! Ali shared that psychological studies show the body’s reaction to stress releases chemicals that weaken the immune system. Coronavirus should be taken seriously but should not scare people to the point of making them more susceptible to it.

The professor also pointed out that the virus enters the body mostly through the mouth and nose, so keep your hands clean and away from your face to prevent infection.

Through it all, Ali is hopeful. “These safeguards are all very easy things to do,” he said. “We need to reduce our risk of getting it, and hopefully when summer brings warmer weather, the virus will not stay infectious for as long in the air.”