Expert on Viruses Unpacks COVID-19 for Nonscientists

Why is this novel coronavirus causing a global pandemic?

Wayne Gray, a virologist in the UM Department of Biology, has more than 40 years’ experience studying viruses. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Wayne Gray, a virologist in the University of Mississippi Department of Biology with more than 40 years’ experience studying viruses, is offering some insights that may help the public understand the COVID-19 pandemic.

A researcher at the University of Arkansas College of Medicine for 37 years, he came to Ole Miss in 2014 and applies his biomedical research to the development and testing of vaccines. He has published more than 55 articles in academic journals.

Gray is working with a research team at the Tulane University National Primate Research Center and is funded by the National Institutes of Health, which focuses on human health and well-being. His current studies focus on developing and evaluating vaccines against viral diseases, including HIV/AIDS. 

Gray explains exactly what a coronavirus is and why COVID-19 is having such a significant impact around the world.

Q: Let’s start with the basics. What is a virus?

A: A virus is very simple: It’s little bit of nucleic acid with a protein coat, but it can cause devastating diseases. Viruses enter cells and use the chemistry of the cell to survive. That’s the only way they can live.

Q: What is a coronavirus?

A: Coronavirus is a family of viruses that in humans most commonly causes common cold symptoms. If you look at this type of virus under an electron microscope, it looks like it has spikes coming off it – like a crown – so it’s called a “corona” virus. COVID-19, coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a specific coronavirus.

Q: What makes the COVID-19 virus so much more dangerous than other coronaviruses?

A: The coronaviruses that cause common colds give us upper respiratory infections. We have runny noses and sore throats. COVID-19 is different. It causes mild or moderate cases in most people. However, in severe disease cases, this virus can move deep into respiratory tract, into the lungs, causing pneumonia.

Q: Why are so many people getting this virus?

A: It’s new, and we don’t have immunity to it yet. It’s also very contagious and passes easily from person to person. It’s a respiratory virus that enters the body through the nose and mouth. If someone coughs or sneezes, the droplets go into the air and then are inhaled by another person.

Q: How did humans get COVID-19 to begin with?

A: This virus, like many coronaviruses, probably began in an animal and was passed to a human.

Q: You said that the virus passes by inhaling it? Can’t we also get infected by touching something that the droplets have landed on, like a tabletop?

A: If the droplets land on a surface, they have a short life there, usually a few hours; although on some surfaces, maybe a couple of days. However, if someone touches a surface that droplets have landed on recently, the virus in on their hands, and they can transfer it to their nose or mouth by touching their face.

But most respiratory viruses are transferred by coughing or sneezing and someone inhaling those droplets when they are in the air.

Q: Why can’t antibiotics treat viruses?

A: Antibiotics are only used for infections caused by bacteria.

Q: Can anything kill the COVID-19 virus?

A: Yes. A coronavirus has a thin “envelope” that can be very easily destroyed by disinfectants and sanitizers. That’s why it’s important to wash hands and wipe down surfaces.

Q: I’ve heard that a vaccine for COVID-19 may not be developed for a year. Why does it take so long to make a vaccination for a virus? 

A: It takes time to find just the right viral target to attack and to conduct studies to make sure the vaccine is safe and effective.

Q: How do we get immunity to a virus?

A: When someone is exposed to a virus, the immune system responds. Our cells remember that particular virus and the next time we are exposed, the immune system can attack that specific virus directly. We can get immunity either by contracting a virus and getting over it or by getting vaccinated.

For example, with a virus like chickenpox, we get it when we’re young and we have immunity for the rest of our lives. With vaccines, we get a killed or weakened form of the virus, and that gives us immunity.

Q: What does the term “herd immunity” mean?

A: If you have enough people in a population who have immunity to a virus – about 90 percent – it’s hard for the virus to become widespread because people can fight it off. Herd immunity is very important for public health.

Q: What does “flattening the curve” mean?

A: This means slowing the rate of the transmission of the virus. We can do that by following the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations to wash hands continually, stand at least 6 feet apart and even quarantine. This helps scientists buy time until we have a solution.

For instance, it’s why there’s a new recommendation that gatherings have 10 people or less. When New York City closed down its restaurants and bars or the San Francisco Bay area tells people to stay in their homes, it’s to flatten the curve.

Q: Will we ever get immunity to COVID-19?

A: Through the years, we’ve had many different viral disease outbreaks like smallpox, polio and HIV. When the scientific community is mobilized against an outbreak, we are able to find solutions through vaccines and antiviral drugs.

I’m confident that scientists will find a vaccine or antiviral drug for COVID-19. It’s going to take some time. There is hope. 

For more health-related information, visit:

National Institutes of Health

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Mississippi State Department of Health

For more information on the UM response, visit