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Norovirus outbreak presents a research opportunity for scientists

Feb 25, 2016

If you’ve never had norovirus, you’re a very lucky person. It’s highly contagious and can knock you down.

“Either diarrhea or vomiting. Some people also have both at the same time, which is obviously the most unpleasant of all the outcomes,” says Christiane Wobus, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Medical School who studies norovirus.

Roughly 150 students got sick with the virus on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus last week.

If you’re a scientist, this outbreak is an opportunity.

An unusual donation ask

If you’ve been sick with norovirus-like symptoms within the past three days, you can make a donation. Wobus wants your stool samples. You can collect your sample in a plastic sealed container — think Tupperware or an empty ice cream carton. 

Here scientist Christiane Wobus holds a large-scale model of a norovirus particle. For research purposes, she's asking people who have had the virus for stool samples.
Credit University of Michigan Health System

As gross as this might sound, it’s actually serving a bigger purpose. Wobus says norovirus is hard to grow in the lab. So scientists just don’t know a lot about it. 

“What we would like to do with them is understand how the virus both gets into a host but also how it gets into the cell,” Wobus says. “If we can prevent those initial steps, then we’re closer, hopefully, to preventing the virus from spreading.”

She says this might mean someone could make an antiviral drug someday, and that might save a lot of people a lot of misery.

If you want to participate in Wobus' study, you can first check out this form.

You can also read this article from the University of Michigan Record. It details the university's disinfecting procedure and talks about what you can do to avoid the virus.

And to learn more about norovirus, check out this in-depth piece from National Geographic.