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A Tale of Two Viruses


Kathleen A. Nolan
Department of Biology, Health Promotion, and Health Care Management
St. Francis College


In this PowerPoint-driven case study, students compare and contrast poliovirus and its effects with SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19. Before the class meeting, students watch a set of videos and read two research papers. In class, the presentation begins with the story of the author’s grandmother who had polio, which personalizes the fear experienced during a pandemic. Guided by “clicker” questions throughout, students learn about poliovirus, its etiology, transmission, the iron lung, as well as the two types of polio vaccines and how they differ. The second part of the presentation focuses on SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. After learning the basics of this virus and disease, students look at data in two sets of patient cases. The first is about a 50-year-old man in Wuhan, China, who eventually succumbed to the disease; the second concerns the first person-to-person documented case of COVID-19 in China. The presentation concludes with students filling out tables to compare and contrast the two viruses. Originally designed for a second-semester general biology course, the case could also be used in anatomy and physiology, epidemiology, or genetics courses.


  • Define a hypothesis.
  • Compare and contrast two different viruses and their infections that have caused pandemics.
  • Understand that different types of viruses can cause different types of problems.
  • Appreciate the role that genetics has in causing variation in people, which leads to different susceptibilities to disease.
  • Understand that politics and funding play a role in public health decisions when searching for vaccines and managing disease.
  • Analyze data from the cases and draw evidence-based conclusions.
  • Realize that there is still much to learn about poliovirus and its eradication and the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19.


COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; coronavirus; virus; polio; poliomyelitis; ventilator; iron lung; genetics; epidemic; pandemic; Wuhan; viremia; vaccine; transmission; Salk; Sabine; agammaglobinemia

Topical Areas

History of science, Policy issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, General public & informal education, Continuing education


PDF, PowerPoint, Word

Type / Methods

Clicker, Directed, Flipped, Journal Article



Subject Headings

Biology (General)  |   Cell Biology  |   Epidemiology  |   Genetics / Heredity  |   Public Health  |   Science (General)  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Supplemental Materials

The Word document below is provided as a convenience for the concluding case activity.


Answer Key

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The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.


Katayoun Chamany
Natural Sciences and Mathematics
Eugene Lang College, The New School
New York
The video collection is really rich. The Media and History film helps students today reflect on the history of polio while seeing the echo in today's debates regarding public congregation, treatment, and mistrust in science. The different genres are good for attracting and maintaining the interest of students with diverse interests.

Dara Wegman-Geedey
Augustana College
Rock Island
The PBS American Experience video: "The Polio Crusade" is no longer available streaming online: can purchase DVD for $20 through PBS or Amazon.

Darlene Dickens
East Georgia State College
Swainsboro, GA 30401
My students and I really enjoyed the case study. The video references were very good. As a side note: The man that is the longest survivor in the Iron Lung is still alive as of today at age 74 (9-30-2020)