Former electron microscopy allowed researchers to observe micro-organisms with more or less details, so that it was sometimes difficult to discern a virus from another microscopic body.
The method created by June Almeida to overcome this difficulty and thus isolate viruses from other micro-organisms is fairly simple, yet efficient: she collects antibodies from previously infected patients and brings them to her biological sample containing the virus. Antibodies aggregate around the viral particles, allowing June Almeida to identify which visible particles are viruses and which are not by using a negative staining.
Her research and publications on electron microscopy allowed her to get awarded a Doctor of Sciences (Sc.D.) degree in 1964 based on her research works. Her discovery of immune electron microscopy enabled her to study the hepatitis B virus and the cold virus within the Common Cold Research Unit with its director David Tyrrell.
In 1966, Waterson, Almeida and Tyrrell worked together on a project involving rhinoviruses on tissue cultures of human cells; among the studied viral samples, a specific respiratory virus named B814 proved to be difficult to cultivate. Tyrrell’s team efforts to observe this virus had also failed so far. June Almeida claimed to her colleagues that she could isolate B814 and produce detailed pictures of it thanks to her new imaging technique. Despite Tyrrell’s skepticism towards Almeida’s words, he agreed to give her samples of B814 virus, along with samples infected with influenza and herpes.
Under her microscope, June Almeida easily isolates the viruses contained in Tyrrell’s samples. More importantly, the structure of B814 reminds her of two other viruses that she had previously studied, responsible of the avian infectious bronchitis and the murine hepatitis. At that time, Almeida’s articles on these two viruses had been rejected because the referees considered her electron micrographs to be bad pictures of an influenza virus. After being guaranteed to have discovered a new family of virus, she shared her discovery with Tyrrell and Waterson. The three of them met in Waterson’s office to decide on its name. As the virus appeared to be surrounded by a halo shaped as a crown, corona in Latin, the team decided to give it the name of coronavirus. This brand-new appellation would then be accepted by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) in 1975.
However, June Almeida’s discoveries do not stop here. She was the first researcher to obtain pictures of the rubella virus and to identify two major components in the hepatitis B viral structure. She also worked at the Wellcome Institute of London where her work allowed her to be named on several patents in the field of imaging viruses. She wrote in 1979 a Manual for rapid laboratory viral diagnosis for the World Health Organization (WHO).
Her first marriage ended in a divorce in 1982 and she retired from the Wellcome Institute in 1985 with her second husband, the virologist Phillip Samuel Gardner. She trained as a yoga teacher at Bexhill-on-Sea but quickly went back to research in the late 1980s to produce micrographs of the HIV virus. June Almeida died from a heart attack in 2007 aged 77.