A Virtual Issue from the ACS Au suite of open access journals provides an overview of the challenges, developments, and long-term consequences of COVID-19.

As we emerge into the post pandemic era, COVID-19 continues to have a lasting impact – both on society and the research ecosystem. Now, articles from across the ACS Au suite of journals have been collated into a Virtual Issue, highlighting considerations for fundamental research as well as ways to mitigate future outbreaks.

This collection includes work in diverse fields including physical chemistry, medicinal chemistry, measurement science, nanoscience, polymers, and the environment. Here, we review a selection of the articles included and encourage you to explore the Virtual Issue in its entirety—all articles are open access and available for everyone to read and download.

Detecting COVID-19

During the pandemic, luciferase-based biosensors have played a vital role in both the study of the virus and in drug development. Luciferase has been isolated from around 30 living systems, including fireflies, sea pansies, and deep-sea shrimp. Two key advantages of these bioluminescent biosensors over their fluorescent counterparts are a higher dynamic range and improved performance in in vivo models. A review published in ACS Nanoscience Au highlights the applications for luciferase-based biosensors in virology, from quantifying protease activity to examining viral cell entry. These tools could be the key to solving future pandemics, and they could be used as surrogate markers for understanding aspects of viral function and detecting infections or immunity.

Detection was also the topic for an international team looking at a new assay based on mass spectroscopy. During the pandemic, COVID-19 diagnosis was performed almost exclusively by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), but there are other possible methods. The paper, published in JACS Au, showcases an alternative test that relies on viral proteins instead of RNA. Importantly, this could allow measurements of viral shedding and infection potential, which cannot be done with RNA alone. The resulting assay is also less prone to contamination than RT-PCR and uses reagents that are most cost-effective and widely available.

Nasopharyngeal swabs were also commonly used for the detection and diagnosis, but this placed pressure on healthcare resources and workers. In the future, self-collection of saliva could be a viable alternative. Research published in ACS Measurement Science Au examined the potential of this approach, finding sensitivity at least 9 times higher than the viral RNA preparation kit recommended by the United States CDC. The method involves adding saliva or gargle samples to a newly formulated buffer, concentrating the viral RNA on magnetic beads, and detecting SARS-CoV-2 using quantitative RT-PCR directly from the beads.

Understanding the Virus

The SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid (N) protein received a lot less attention than the spike protein during the pandemic, but it is abundant in the viral core and has an important role in replication and transcription. A team from the University of Oxford, UK, published work in JACS Au describing the multiple roles of N protein and how it is facilitated. The researchers used mass spectrometry to show that N protein binds RNA with a preference for GGG, a common motif in coronavirus packaging signals. The different interactions highlight potential targets for further research and may contribute to advances in other immune-directed therapies currently being investigated.

There is now strong evidence for the airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, with outbreaks reported after events such as choir performances. A 2021 study published in ACS Environmental Au used flow visualization, aerosol and CO2 measurements, and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to understand the risk from prolonged singing or playing instruments. The results showed that musical performances produced a greater number of airborne particles compared to normal speaking levels. The aerosol plumes were highly three-dimensional and varied considerably in time and space. Knowing this allows singers and musicians to take appropriate precautions before and during concerts, such as wearing a mask or placing a cover over the bell of woodwind instruments.

Impact on Waste Management

Waste segregation and treatment plays an important role in reducing environmental, health, and social impacts. COVID also had an impact on waste management. Researchers in Canada reviewed the literature on municipal and medical solid waste management systems, particularly regarding single-use plastics in testing, masks, and protective clothing. Their review in ACS Environmental Au reports that at one point during the pandemic, as many as 210 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves were used every month. Additionally, normal waste trends and volumes changed as people spent more time at home. The authors recommend segregation of contaminated and noncontaminated waste at the source as well as subsequent recycling and management strategies for mitigating the environmental impact of solid waste, both during future pandemic scenarios and post-pandemic periods.

Considering that waste takes us full circle back to detection, wastewater-based epidemiology is useful for the surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 in communities, complementing clinical diagnostic testing of individuals. However, low concentrations of viral particles and RNA present in wastewater and sewage require efficient sample processing and sensitive detection. In another review published in ACS Environmental Au, the authors consider both the progress made and the challenges that remain in wastewater-based epidemiology.

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