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LHU faculty discuss origin, spread of COVID-19 and effects of the pandemic on campus community

Barrie Overton Image

Lock Haven University professor of biology, Dr. Barrie Overton studies white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection affecting North American bat populations. Overton and his students have been published extensively on the topic, though their research is currently on hold due to the pandemic.

LHU’s health science students also are greatly affected by the current pandemic, with many working on the front lines as they complete their coursework for the semester.

According to Overton, similarities exist between the emergence of white-nose syndrome and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Whether an animal or human pathogen, humans are by and large responsible for their spread, especially with how connected the globe now is with modern air travel and global supply chains. SARS-CoV-2 and Pseudogymnoascus destructans are two different pathogens, but the emergence and spread of these pathogens can directly be linked to human behavior, according to Overton.

White-nose syndrome, caused by the Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has decimated North American bat populations with some species experiencing greater than 90 percent population declines.  “While there is bat-to-bat transmission of the fungus similar to human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the species responsible for moving both of these pathogens around the world is humans,” Overton said. “Humans and human behavior, including treatment of wildlife and the environment, are the primary problems that lead to emerging pathogens whether of animals or man.”

Bats, as well as other animals, can carry coronaviruses. The intermediate animal host for COVID-19 has not been conclusively determined yet, and research on coronaviruses in North American bats is still limited with no report of a SARS-like virus ever being transmitted from North American bats to humans, according to Overton.

These viruses often involve an animal host before being transmitted to humans, Overton said. For example, the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak is believed to have passed from a bat to a camel and then to a human. One thing is certain, Overton added, a SARS virus infecting humans with a 100 percent genetic match to a virus currently living in a bat has never been discovered.

“US Fish and Wildlife has suggested, not made mandatory, that bat researchers do not interact with bats while this outbreak is occurring to keep North American bats from being infected by asymptomatic carriers,” Overton said. Lock Haven University is following these guidelines, as well as those set by Gov. Tom Wolf and the PASSHE Chancellor, Dan Greenstein, and as a result, face- to- face research has moved online out of an abundance of caution.

Overton and collaborators from Temple University and the Pennsylvania Game Commission study treatment and mitigation strategies for the emerging fungal pathogen that causes white-nose syndrome.

According to Overton, students at LHU have been working on bat related research projects for almost six years, completing student-driven independent study projects as well as interfacing with graduate students from Temple. Abby Rea, a local LHU biology senior, described two new species of fungi to mankind from Pennsylvania caves and mines and has had her work published in Fungal Planet. Many students working on these projects at LHU are biology or health science majors.

Overton also has collaborated with researchers at Penn State University to describe a novel virus to mankind that lives in the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. “My collaborators at PSU used the virus to track the epidemiology of the spread of white-nose syndrome,” Overton said. “SARS-CoV-2 researchers are now doing the same thing with COVID-19.”

Lock Haven University is a regional leader in studying treatments of emerging pathogens of wildlife and training the next generation of health care professionals. With clinical programs in athletic training, clinical mental health counseling, nursing and physician assistant studies, students at LHU have seen first-hand the impact of the pandemic.

“While everyone has been affected, our students are experiencing it not only personally, but also as future professionals in healthcare” said Amy Way, professor of health science.

While face-to-face clinical experiences have stopped for the semester, learning during this unique situation has not. Faculty are seeking virtual ways for students to meet the clinical requirements of their programs. Students are writing reflective pieces about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their area of healthcare and having meaningful conversations about the impact of a pandemic on healthcare professionals, facilities and resources. Students who already work in healthcare are challenged with balancing schoolwork and an increased demand to be available to staff emergency rooms, ambulances and clinics.

“Our students continue to be challenged to think both locally and globally about the issue,” Way said.

Research opportunities exist for students in biology and health science, but also in areas such as sociology, education and political science, to name a few. Every academic area is affected, and this creates opportunities for students to learn more about the global impact of a health crisis on their discipline.

“We are all learning to live with changes in the way we live, work and learn,” Way said. “Social distancing, face masks and connecting virtually, rather than in person, have become our new normal. As an academic institution, our responsibility goes beyond managing the obstacles that the pandemic has created. It’s important not only how we deal with it, but what we can learn from it.”

For more information on Lock Haven University, visit www.lockhaven.edu, email admissions@lockhaven.edu, or call 570-484-2011. 

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Lock Haven University’s main campus is located on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in the scenic mountains of Pennsylvania. The university offers 49 undergraduate majors and certifications with 47 minors and five graduate programs.

LHU is a member of Pennsylvania’s State System, the largest provider of higher education in the Commonwealth. Its 14 universities offer more than 2,300 degree and certificate programs in more than 530 academic areas of study. Nearly 520,000 system alumni live and work in Pennsylvania.

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