June Almeida Who Discovered First Human Coronavirus Left School At 16
Although COVID-19 is a new virus, it is caused by a human coronavirus, which was first identified in 1964, decades before this current situation.
The woman who discovered it, June Almeida, born in 1930, is proof that your path in life isn’t necessarily decided – or indeed limited – when you’re 16. Although, I know as well as anyone how it can feel that way when you’re blinking back tears on GCSE results day.
Having left school at 16 without much in the way of a formal education, Almeida managed to get a job as a laboratory technician in the field of histopathology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. From there, her career escalated to extraordinary heights, with June ultimately becoming a world-renowned virologist.
June, who grew up as the daughter of a bus driver in a north east Glasgow tenement building, went on to move to London where she continued to work in histopathology at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, as per the British Medical Journal.
After marrying Venezuelan artist Enriques Almeida in 1954, the couple emigrated to Canada, where June found employment as an electron microscopy technician at Toronto’s Ontario Cancer Institute.
Despite her lack of formal diplomas, June’s remarkable scientific talents soon became apparent. Speaking on Drivetime on BBC Radio Scotland, medical writer George Winter explained how June was persuaded to return to London to work at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, the very same hospital where Boris Johnson was recently treated for the virus.
It was here that June collaborated with Dr David Tyrrell who had been studying nasal washings from volunteers as part of his research into the common cold. His team discovered they could grow a few common cold-associated viruses, but not all.
One particular sample – known as B814 – was taken in 1960 from the nasal washings of a boarding school pupil from Surrey. The team found common cold symptoms could be transmitted to their volunteers. However, it could not be grown in a routine cell culture.
With volunteer studies demonstrating how it could be grown within organ cultures, Dr Tyrrell wondered if the samples could be examined beneath an electron microscope. An area in which June had developed outstanding expertise.
After being sent the samples, June was able to see virus particles within the specimens, which she described as being similar to – but not exactly like – influenza viruses.
It was at this point June identified what would become known as the very first human coronavirus, named as such because of the ‘halo’ or ‘crown’ which could be detected in the viral images.
June had reportedly seen such particles before in her work looking into mouse hepatitis and infectious bronchitis of chickens.
According to Winter, June’s paper on her B814 findings was initially rejected by a peer-reviewed journal ‘because the referees said the images she produced were just bad pictures of influenza virus particles’.
This vital new discovery was eventually written up in the British Medical Journal in 1965, with June’s images published two years later in the Journal of General Virology.
June passed away in 2007 at the age of 77. In the wake of the outbreak, there has been an outpouring of renewed interest and appreciation for her pioneering work.
It’s okay to not panic about everything going on in the world right now. LADbible and UNILAD’s aim with our campaign, Cutting Through, is to provide our community with facts and stories from the people who are either qualified to comment or have experienced first-hand the situation we’re facing. For more information from the World Health Organization, click here.
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