Coronavirus Diaries: I’m a Biologist in Milan Working Nonstop to Understand COVID-19

A woman doing research in a lab, with "Coronavirus Diaries" logo across it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay, from Annalisa Bergna, a 29-year-old biologist working in Milan, Italy, has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Greta Privitera.

Milan—On Feb. 21, COVID-19 broke into our laboratory and turned everything upside down. It was supposed to be a day like any other, but nothing goes as planned anymore. That afternoon, we should have gone to the graduation of a student who did his thesis with us, but in the end only one colleague of mine went. The rest of us immediately put our heads down and started working on the virus.

That day, four patients from Codogno, a small city where the first breeding ground was discovered, had arrived in the Sacco hospital in Milan, where I work. That’s how we got the sample. Over six days and six nights of nonstop work, we managed to isolate the Italian strain of the virus. Nothing extraordinary, but it was an important step for studying the development of antibodies and therefore of vaccines and treatments.

Since that day, everyone has asked me what it means to isolate a virus. Isolating a virus means separating it from the organism, then culturing it in the laboratory together with healthy cells that the virus infects. We do all of this to have useful quantities of virus to be able to carry out subsequent studies. And with COVID-19 we did just that: We put it together with healthy cells, we waited for it to infect them, we analyzed them, and we extracted the genome. We were very happy that day. We were and still are in an emergency and achieving that result was important for future work. Now we are collecting more material from the infected patients, and we are proceeding with the sequencing of the complete genome of the virus, its RNA. We are looking for all the answers about where it was, under what conditions it developed to reconstruct its “identity card.” The virus circulating in Italy is slightly different from the Chinese one, as well as the one circulating in other countries: Every infected person changes something.

Someone asked me if I risk getting infected. No, we are superprotected. The laboratory where I work has BSL3 security; the max is BSL4, intended for viruses like Ebola. Before entering our laboratory, there is a small lobby that separates the different environments. We wear overalls, goggles, masks, and gloves on top of gloves. This work is carried out in a special hood that provides even more protection. I believe there are more risks walking down the street.

This was a team effort led by professor Claudia Balotta, who helped me and my colleagues, Alessia Loi, Arianna Gabrieli, Maciej Tarkowski, and professor Gianguglielmo Zehender, to achieve the goal. We have all put research before anything else. Usually, we study other viruses, such as HIV and hepatitis, we study bacteria, we sequence genomes, we see the various mutations. We follow the progress of various infections. Since COVID-19 appeared in our lives, we’ve worked 10- to 12-hour days, only on this. We are those on the second line, and we have no intention of backing down.

I have worked at the laboratory at Sacco hospital since my graduation in 2015. I could have never imagined to live through such an intense emergency, but I’m honored to be part of my team. Even if I have a precarious work position, no long-term contract, and little pay, I feel lucky. I’m 29 years old. This is what I dreamed of and I hope to continue doing, though of course it would be nice to have a little more stability.

For three weeks, my life has been a sequence of: home-work-home. I’m constantly thinking about COVID-19. We are an arms’ length from those who fight between life and death. We are in the middle of the storm.

But it’s doctors and nurses who risk the most. They are the modern heroes of these dark times. We are the ones behind them who try to study this unknown virus closely. Only by understanding it and knowing how it moves will we be able to find a solution.