The race against a global epidemic mechanisms of infection of COVID-19

Better understanding the process of infection with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and arming ourselves against epidemics


The coronavirus family is not new; it’s the second most common cause of colds or upper respiratory infections in humans. The virus that the entire world is currently concerned with is a distant cousin that comes from other animals. Animal viruses that manage to infect humans can prove to be formidable opponents because there is no preexisting immunity in the human population. COVID-2019 has a mortality rate currently estimated at 2%, which is almost 100 times higher than that of the seasonal flu. This epidemic, which led the WHO to declare a “public health emergency of international concern”, is proving to be increasingly complex and is far from being under control. Scientists are watching day to day as this new epidemic unfolds into a unique situation that combines medical, social, and geopolitical sciences and communication challenges. The virus sets the rhythm; public health authorities are sometimes caught off guard by the epidemic’s virulence and means of contagiousness. Quarantine and hygiene measures are in place to avoid spread of the disease. Still, we must understand the virus’s mechanism of infection to be capable of beating it, now and in the future.



The project consists of understanding the mechanisms of infection of SARS-CoV-2 in the COVID-19 epidemic in order to gain crucial information for treatment procedures. The project has three research components:
- First, the high rate of infection with SARS-CoV-2 observed in the past weeks leads us to suspect that the upper respiratory passages are also infected (and not just the lungs); this enables easier transmission of the virus. The task is thus to understand the process of infection and propagation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the epithelial cells of the upper and lower respiratory passages and to determine how the virus is released in order to know the degree of transmission.
- Second, it is crucial to understand the influence of smoking and chronic respiratory diseases on viral replication. This component is based on the hypothesis that in China, higher mortality rates were caused by the high rates of air pollution and smokers, as well as by a significant number of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma.
- Third, we need to understand at the cellular level the effects of co-infection by the influenza virus and the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Given that the epidemics of COVID-2019 and influenzas A or B occur during the same season (winter) and have a severe effect on the same types of patients (people over 65 and with COPD), scientists hypothesize that co-infection with the two viruses could aggravate illness.

Monitoring patients with COVID-19 allows us to collect crucial immunological data. What is the connection between viral load and severity of illness? How does the immune system’s response evolve over the course of the illness?

Antiviral treatments are likely a viable solution. Teams have developed several antiviral treatments that are currently being evaluated for their therapeutic potential against SARS-CoV-2.

This project is being directed by a team of researchers with complementary profiles who all have many years of experience in the domains of respiratory viruses or emerging diseases. Their proposals are part of a long-term approach aimed at strengthening local expertise beyond the current public health crisis.

This project is supported by the Pictet Charitable Foundation. You too can contribute to its success by making a donation.

To make a donation: Credit Suisse, Fondation privée des HUG - IBAN CH75 0483 5094 3228 2100 0 or CCP 80-500-4 _ Reference: COVID-19

Your donation is tax deductible. The Foundation will apply the entirety of the donations we receive to these projects.

For more information on this virus and news, please see the Geneva University Hospitals’ website:



Professor Isabella Eckerle, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Geneva & Deputy Head Physician and Clinical Professor, Infectious Diseases Division, Department of Medicine, Geneva University Hospitals
Professor Caroline Tapparel, Associate Professor, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Geneva
Professor Laurent Kaiser, Full Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Geneva & Head of Division, Infectious Diseases Division, Department of Medicine, Geneva University Hospitals
Dr. Pauline Vetter, Internist, Infectious Diseases Division, Geneva University Hospitals





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