COVID-19 Cancellations Accelerate

Rachel McCord

COVID-19 Cancellations Accelerate

As the Big Ears Festival pulls the plug and UT moves classes online, researchers explain what they know about the rapidly spreading coronavirus — and the things they still don’t.

by jesse fox mayshark And scott barker • March 12, 2020


rachel patton Mccord, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology, talks about the evolution of the novel coronavirus.

On the day when the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the novel coronavirus claimed one high-profile Knoxville victim: the Big Ears Music Festival.

UT researchers say science is moving fast, but the virus is moving faster.

Big Ears founder Ashley Capps announced in a statement Wednesday afternoon that the internationally acclaimed music and arts festival — scheduled for March 26-29 — will not take place in downtown Knoxville as planned.

“Just 48 hours ago, we were optimistic that there was a path forward,” Capps said. “But with events surrounding COVID-19 developing rapidly along with the obvious need for urgent steps to contain its spread, we simply cannot move forward with the festival as scheduled.”

Later in the day, the University of Tennessee announced that like other universities around the country, it was temporarily suspending in-person classes after next week’s spring break and moving instruction online. Classes on the UT Knoxville campus will be affected until at least April 3.

Our top priority is the health and safety of our students,” Interim UT President Randy Boyd said in a news release. “We are taking this preventative measure with all of our campuses that provide face-to-face instruction out of an abundance of caution.”

The extraordinary measures showed how quickly containment and control of the spreading virus has become a top priority for governments and institutions across the globe. 

Two more cases of infection by the virus were confirmed in Tennessee yesterday, bringing the total to nine so far: five in Williamson County, two in Davidson County, and one each in Shelby and Sullivan counties.

As of last night, there are no confirmed cases in Knox County. But in a briefing for reporters yesterday, County Mayor Glenn Jacobs emphasized that that won’t last.

“It’s inevitable that we’re going to get some cases,” Jacobs said. “We just all know that.”

What the Science Says

A group of researchers who gathered for a hastily convened seminar Wednesday on the UT campus likewise emphasized the probability of the virus’ spread. And they offered a multidisciplinary summary of what science knows about COVID-19 — and all the things it doesn’t.

“It’s very infectious,” Barry Rouse, a distinguished professor in genome and science technology, told a lecture hall packed with students, faculty and media members in UT’s Ken and Blaire Mossman Building. “It seems, as far as we know, it’s easier to catch than perhaps this (year’s) flu.”

He said that from preliminary research, it appears that each person infected with the new coronavirus could be expected to infect two to four more people, a much higher rate than the flu. 

“That’s a problem,” Rouse said. He cited as realistic German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s estimate yesterday that up to 70 percent of her country’s population would eventually become infected.

Rouse and the other scientists who spoke were addressing a regular weekly graduate seminar in Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology, led by Professor Barry Bruce. In introducing Wednesday’s unusual session, Bruce said the day had originally been set aside for a guest lecturer from California, whose travel was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns. So he decided to instead pull together UT experts to give a briefing on the virus.

Panel members emphasized that while the current virus is new in humans, it belongs to the well-known coronavirus family, which has been making its way from other animals to homo sapiens for some time. The best-known previous example was the SARS outbreak in 2003, which killed 774 people worldwide over the course of about six months. According to WHO, COVID-19 had already killed 4,292 people as of last night, out of 118,381 confirmed cases.

COVID-19 is also caused by a SARS virus — its scientific name is SARS-CoV-2 — and Rouse said it most likely came to humans from bats, who are carriers of coronaviruses. The exact source of transmission is not known, but a likely culprit is open-air wild game markets in the province of China where the virus was first identified in December 2019.

Rachel Patton McCord, an assistant professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, said the genome of the virus was sequenced and published quickly, allowing scientists to start analyzing it and comparing it to 35,000 virus genomes already in public databases. New online tools like BLAST (the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) allow for quick searches of genomic sequences to look for matches.

“We can compare the sequence of the current coronavirus to the 2003 (SARS) virus to find out whether drugs that were under development for that disease before it fizzled out might still be repurposed,” McCord said. “So you can see that a key protein, the spike protein from the 2003 SARS, is actually 76 percent similar to our current SARS coronavirus.”

The spherical coronavirus is so named for the protein spikes that stud it, creating the appearance of an encircling corona.

Hong Guo, a professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, said the COVID-19 pandemic showed the advances in science and technology since the 2003 SARS outbreak. It took two and a half years, long after the outbreak had ended, to produce a three-dimensional model of the SARS virus, he said. With the new coronavirus, that took about two weeks.

“The structural biology has been developed very quickly,” he said.

Even with all of that, though, Rouse cautioned that a vaccine or effective medicine could be a long way off — if it ever arrives.

“We should remind ourselves we have never had an effective vaccine against any coronavirus,” he said. He also said that the prospect of the virus’ impact lessening as the weather warms is possible, but there’s no way to know at this point. It has already spread to the Southern Hemisphere, which is emerging from its hottest months.

“Ultimately, 70 percent of the world is going to get infected,” Rouse said. “We don’t want them all infected at the same time.”

Local Impacts

Even before any cases have been confirmed in Knox County, COVID-19 is affecting people’s travel plans, workplaces and the local economy.

The cancellation of Big Ears is more than a cultural loss. In past years the festival has injected more than $2 million into the local economy, and downtown businesses in particular will be hard hit. 

“We’re obviously very sad Big Ears can’t go on because it’s such a great festival and a great way to showcase Knoxville,” said Rick Dover, developer of Hyatt Place Knoxville in the historic Farragut Hotel.

According to Dover, guests in town for Big Ears snatch up every room in the hotel for the entire week of the festival. “This is going to wipe out what is the best week of the year for us,” he said.

Otherwise, business travel has slowed a little, Dover said, though reservations for leisure travel, which is more important to his hotel than to others in the area, hasn’t been affected.

Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville, said Big Ears is the first major event to cancel because of COVID-19. Representatives of an upcoming youth conference have asked about the safety of travel to the city. “We haven’t even had a case reported in Knoxville,” she said. “I’m not advising any of our out-of-town groups to cancel, but it’s their decision.”

Dover said he understands the public’s reluctance to travel right now — he just canceled a family trip himself — and hopes Capps can figure out a way to reschedule the festival. “If anybody can put it together, it’s Ashley Capps.”

On the UT Knoxville campus, Chancellor Donde Plowman wrote in an email to students, faculty and staff that students living in residence halls, fraternities and sororities should not return to campus after spring break.

Students are expected to stay home after spring break and participate in online classes from their primary residence,” Plowman wrote. “We understand that this is not possible for every student. If you live in a residence hall or fraternity or sorority house and you are not able to stay at home after spring break, you can register for an exemption to continue to live on campus.”

All non-athletic university events have been canceled between March 16 and April 5. As for athletic events, Plowman wrote, “Decisions concerning events organized by the athletics department will be evaluated by the director of athletics in coordination with the chancellor, the SEC, and the NCAA.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert announced yesterday that the upcoming “March Madness” championship tournaments for both men’s and women’s basketball would be played without fans and with “only essential staff and limited family attendance.”