Coronavirus breakthrough: Scientists uncover key detail about virus as new lockdown hits

New local lockdowns are to be announced across the country today as coronavirus cases continue to soar. Northern England is set to be targeted, with the Liverpool City region expected to face the tightest restrictions. A new “three tier” system will come into place which will classify regions as being on “medium”, “high” or “very high” alert.

Steve Rotheram, the city region’s mayor, says negotiations have taken place through the night but “no deal” has been agreed yet.

Among the establishments affected, gyms, casinos and pubs, which will be forced to completely shut down under the tier 3 rules.

The restrictions come as scientists in the UK and around the world work to further understand COVID-19 and race to discover a vaccine.

Considerable ground was recently made after researchers in the US identified why the disease causes ansomnia – the loss of smell and taste.

The COVID-19 symptom of ansomnia is different from that of the common cold or flu.

With two other illnesses, the cause is usually a blocked nose caused by inflammation of the area, however, for many people, ansomnia is their only COVID-19 symptom.

The new research suggests that the reason for this could lie in the mechanism by which the virus infects our cells.

A protein found on the surface of some human cells, which are present in the heart, lungs, gut, throat and nose are thought to be the “entry point” for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

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The protein – an enzyme known as “angiotensin converting enzyme II” (ACE-2) – has a particular shape that enables it to take the hormone angiotensin and convert it into angiotensin II, which is used in the body for various things, like regulating blood pressure.

The way in which ACE-2’s shape fits perfectly with angiotensin is similar to how it gels with the spiky outer proteins of the coronavirus.

A team of scientists at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, through looking at tissue samples from people’s noses, launched a study hoping to quantify the number of ACE-2 proteins found in each type of cell.

Their research showed that the levels of protein on the olfactory epithelium – the tissue at the back of the nose which is used to detect smell – were “strikingly” high.

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They came out between 200 and 700 times higher than in other areas of the nose.

Professor Andrew P Lane, an author of the study, told BBC Science Focus magazine: “The olfactory-supporting cells are necessary to protect and maintain the delicate neurons in the nose that detect odours and signal that information to the brain.

“Generally speaking, when cells are reinfected with a virus, they undergo a process called pyroptosis – essentially hitting the self-destruct button to foil the virus.

“So, most likely, olfactory-supporting cells destroy themselves, leading in turn to the death of sensory neurons and loss of the sense of smell.”

Separate and further studies looking at the recovery of COVID-19 patients have found these neurons do recover over time.

However, the long-lasting effects of the “self-destruction” button being pushed are still unknown.

Prof Lane explained: “Some COVID-19 patients are reporting distorted smell – parosmia – persisting for months after their sense of smell has returned.

“This long-lasting smell disturbance with COVID-19 is unusual and warrants further study.

“It is possible that this altered smell function may be permanent, but it is too soon to know.

“We are optimistic that this eventually goes away as the brain ‘re-learns’ to interpret signals from the regenerated olfactory lining.”

It is thought that this eventual finding could indicate potential avenues for treating the infection directly through the nose.

You can read next month’s issue of BBC Science Focus by subscribing here.

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