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Exploring and explaining the science of Covid-19

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Published on 14 July 2020

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A new animation has been created for secondary school students to explore how the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 works.

The work also looks at how the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) consortium is mapping how the virus interacts with the human body.

This arts and science collaboration between the Wellcome Sanger Institute and University of Sunderland gives an accessible introduction to the biology of COVID-19 to students and the general public.

It also highlights recent findings from the global HCA consortium that identified specific nose and eye cells that could be involved in transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The Human Cell Atlas (HCA) is a pioneering, multidisciplinary global research project that aims to create a ‘Google map’ of all 37 trillion cells in the human body. This map is paving the way for a new understanding of human health and disease.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic started, HCA researchers from around the world quickly came together to find out how the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 affects cells. They discovered that cells in the nose and eyes have entry points for the virus, making them likely initial infection routes. This global research is continuing rapidly, to help understand how the virus works.

The public engagement animation, entitled: ‘Mapping COVID-19: How the Human Cell Atlas enhances our understanding of the disease’ [link] was created for students aged 11-14,  Funded by Wellcome as part of their Strategic Science Award to the HCA, it shows our rapidly growing understanding of how COVID-19 is transmitted and reveals the impact of scientific research on real-world problems.

Nick Lewis, Lecturer in Illustration, Animation and Games Art at University of Sunderland, said: “We hope that teachers and educators can use our animation as a resource to explain the biology of COVID-19 in an engaging way. At University of Sunderland, we’re committed to developing interdisciplinary opportunities that help show our students how well arts and diverse disciplines can complement each other. Our animation shows how creative skills can develop a deeper understanding of how cutting edge science is applied in the real world, bringing science to light.”

The cross-disciplinary collaboration is a great example of the power of STEAM - Science Technology Engineering Arts and Maths. This arts and science collaboration was also supported by Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement.

Suzy O’Hara, Project Manager and Curator of the Human Cell Atlas Public Engagement Wellcome Grant, working on behalf of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “This is the first arts-science collaboration in our ambitious public engagement programme with the Human Cell Atlas, and we hope this animation will engage the general public as well as school students. Our aim is to improve the value and trust people place in pioneering scientific research by fostering opportunities to develop new ways of thinking, seeing and doing between artists, scientists and diverse communities across the UK and beyond.”

Dr Sarah Teichmann from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and co-chair of the Human Cell Atlas Organising Committee, said: “The Human Cell Atlas is aiming to map every cell type in the human body. Even as we’re building the Atlas, it is already being used to understand COVID-19 and identify which cells are critical for initial infection and transmission, which could help understand how coronavirus spreads. This animation introduces the idea of the Human Cell Atlas research and shows students how science is directly helping to understand the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to it.”

Teachers and anyone else who is interested can watch the video and sign up for information on future HCA Public Engagement images and animations at: https://www.humancellatlas.org/engagement/

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