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First sight of SARS-CoV-2 under electron microscope lenses

Published May 25, 2020


CAPE TOWN -The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), a division of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), has caught first sight of the local Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of Covid-19, the NICD said on Saturday.

"This was done by culturing the virus in a high biocontainment facility, biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratory, which together with biosafety level 4 (BSL4) laboratory, is the most advanced integrated high and maximum biocontainment infrastructure on the African continent," the NICD said in a statement.

Staff were required to wear highly specialised BSL3 personnel protective equipment to protect themselves while doing this painstaking work. Successful isolation of the virus was confirmed by observing changes in the cell lines used to grow the virus, called a cytopathic effect (CPE). Confirmation that this was indeed SARS-CoV-2 was done by specific diagnostic molecular assay. The cultured virus was visualised under a high powered electron microscope, the NICD said.

The capacity to culture SARS-CoV-2 from local Covid-19 cases was developed in the past few weeks by Professor Janusz Paweska and his team at the NICD. It would allow scientists to better understand the basic virology and pathogenicity of this novel coronavirus and enhance South Africa’s capacity to develop diagnostics and anti-viral compounds.

"There is also the possibility of using laboratory-grown virus for the local development of inactivated or live-attenuated Covid-19 vaccines and contribute to effective disease prevention and control," the NICD said.

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