The very first human case of coronavirus was discovered at St Thomas’s Hospital back in 1964

The same hospital which treated the Prime Minister

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the world in a way many of us have never seen before and hope to never see again. Although Covid-19 can feel like a new and unprecedented virus that no one knew about and no one knows how to stop, it actually comes from a family of viruses that have been around longer than people realise.

The first human case of coronavirus was actually first discovered and identified for the first time in a laboratory at St Thomas’s Hospital back in 1964. The team who worked on the sample initially suspected it was influenza, but once they created imaging of the virus and analysed it, they realised they had found something new altogether. Coronavirus.

Coronavirus is a group of related viruses that can cause illnesses in both mammals and birds. The first case in animals was found in North Dakota in 1931 in a group of chickens suffering from a respiratory infection. In the 1940s, two more cases in animals were detected, first in mice than in pigs. It was not until 1964 till a strain of the virus was discovered in humans at St Thomas’s Hospital by Scottish virologist, June Almeida.

Almeida was an expert in her field and used viral imaging to identify the structure of the virus

June Almeida was a pioneer in viral imaging and had already had earned herself an international reputation in the field. She had developed an original technique in electron microscopy that enabled viruses to be identified. By introducing antibodies that gathered round the virus, Almeida’s method allowed clinicians to alert clinicians to its presence and visualise viruses through images.

In 1964, she was working at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London. She began to collaborate with Dr David Tyrell who was doing research at the Common Cold Unit in Salisbury. Tyrell had collected samples of a flu-like virus known as B814 from a schoolboy from Surrey. After failing to cultivate B814 using traditional methods in their laboratory and unsure what they were working with, Tyrell sent the samples to Almeida to investigate further under a microscope. She was able to create clear imaging of the sample which she observed were similar to that of influenza.

B814 turned out to be the first human cases of coronavirus

Although Almeida knew it was similar, the sample she was looking at was something new. It was the first human case of coronavirus. Not only this, but she also recognised the virus from former research. She remembered seeing particles like this in infectious bronchitis in chickens and hepatitis in mice as mentioned previously. She had even submitted a paper about both viruses which had unfortunately been rejected.

Almeida, her supervisor and Tyrell gathered to discuss what they had found and to devise a new name for their discovery. Using the imaging for inspiration, they noticed that the spokes around the edge of the virus were ring-like or similar to that of a halo. This is where we get the word coronavirus from, corona being the Latin word for crown.

Almeida and Tyrell had no idea how important their findings would be half a century later.

Their discovery was published in the British Medical Journal in 1965 and two years later the first photographs of what they had found were published in the Journal of General Virology. Little did they did how important their discoveries would be more than fifty later. Almeida’s technique was essential in identifying the mysterious virus and showing that is was a new and unknown strain and not influenza as suspected.

Almeida was born June Hart in 1930. She grew up in a tenement house in the poor end of Glasgow and never completed formal education. Although she left school without qualifications, her contribution to science, particularly virology, has been outstanding. Hugh Pennington, professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University told the Scottish Herald, “Without her pioneering work things would be slower in dealing with the current coronavirus outbreak. Her work has speeded up our understanding of the virus. She was a pioneer”

Almeida died before the full extent to her discoveries was realised.

Almeida sadly passed away in 2007, thirteen years before the strain of the virus she discovered changed the world as we know it. She should be remembered for her impressive achievements and for helping human understanding into how viruses work.

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