Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Again, hello everyone! Thanks for joining us today on our fifth episode of our Unwritten Webinar Series, where our expert author joins, our student co-hosts talk about COVID-changed world. I’m your host, Saleem Abu-Tayeh, a Pearson campus ambassador and a second year here at the University of Virginia studying Global Commerce and Biology. In this episode, I’m thrilled to have opportunity to discuss the unique nature of this coronavirus and the rationale for public health strategies used to fight it.
I’m joined today by Laura Howe, who is the Vice President of Innovation Communications for Pearson. She will be monitoring our live Q&A. Keep your questions ready and put them in the chat box. We’ll get to them in about 15 minutes.
I’m also delighted to welcome Dr. Lisa Urry, Professor of Biology at Mills College in Oakland, California. Dr. Urry holds her Ph.D. from MIT and is co-author of the bestselling textbook ‘Campbell Biology’.
We want to begin each of these conversations by turning it over to our expert author for a two-minute hot take on the most important thing people should know about our COVID-changed world.
So Dr. Urry, give us your hot take.
Dr. Lisa Urry: Thank you Saleem and thank you all for joining us here today. As you all know, this pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes and I know it has been and continues to be a really stressful time, especially at the end of probably the craziest semester I’ve ever experienced in my 25 years as a professor.
So first, many of you may have family or friends who are on the frontlines, risking their lives each day supporting the rest of us as we try to stay safe.
I know, for example, Saleem’s mother and uncle both work in healthcare. So I think it’s really important to remember and express our gratitude to these folks, first of all.
Second, the coronavirus pandemic. Pandemic is a global outbreak of disease, is a perfect storm of factors. Just to name a few, humans -- there are human practices that destroy animal habitats and maximize human contact with wild animals, human populations clustering in dense urban areas. And if you match that up with a virus, that’s fine-tuned by evolutionary mechanisms so that it’s very contagious between humans with a wide range of symptoms, including no symptoms at all, and a fairly low mortality or fatality rate under 5%, and a long incubation period. So most infected people can pass on the virus to several others. I think what has struck me most during this time is how important it is for all of us to understand some science, whether we are scientists or not.
We all see and hear on the Internet all sorts of irrational or semi-irrational ideas, and I just wanted to list a few of them. The virus is a hoax. The pandemic isn’t really happening or the virus is caused by 5G cell phone networks or Bill Gates introduced it so he can insert microchips into us when we get vaccines or even the virus was designed in a lab and introduced by a lab it’s kind of a biological warfare weapon. And, you know, some people think, oh, it’s just a mild case of -- like a mild case of the flu. Or how about this, if you drink really hot water, you can kill the virus or even we’ve heard that it might be treated by introducing UV light or disinfectants into the body.
And finally, I’ve heard also that even though we don’t know it, so many of us may have already been infected, that we’re probably already having something called Herd Immunity. So the virus is just going to go away.
Well, all of these ideas don’t make any sense when we look at the data and it takes only an informal understanding of scientific thought process to figure that out. That’s what really struck me during this time. It’s so important for all of us, for students, for instructors, for anyone else who’s interested to help everyone in our communities understand how this virus works and how we can fight it.
Science is the best weapon against the coronavirus, and in that light, I’m really happy to answer any questions you have, Saleem, or anyone else in the audience.
Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Thank you Dr. Urry for your hot take. I think you made vital points about how appreciative we should be for those who are on the front lines of this pandemic, and the importance of using scientific method to reason.
Let’s get started with understanding of biological aspects of this virus. My first question is, what is exactly a virus and how do viruses infect people? What is known about this coronavirus?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Viruses are tiny particles, much smaller than bacteria, that can infect cells and cause disease. Most biologists consider viruses to be “non-living” because they can’t reproduce on their own. They require a host cell that they can invade and take control of. A virus is basically a string of genetic information, housed in a membrane case, that can enter human cells and reprogram them to make more viruses. They steal all the building blocks they use from the host cell, including even the membrane that they wrap themselves in.
So in December of 2019, an alarming number of cases of pneumonia emerged in Wuhan, China. And on January 7th, which is really quick, Chinese researchers isolated the infective agent. It turned out to be a novel coronavirus, a new coronavirus that was from the same family of viruses that had caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, and also Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012. This new SARS coronavirus was named SARS-CoV-2, because it’s the second coronavirus to cause a severe respiratory syndrome, and the disease itself that it causes is called COVID-19, because 2019 was the year this new virus emerged.
So once the genetic sequence was known, it could be compared against all other known coronavirus sequences and it turned out to be most closely related to some coronaviruses that are found in bats, which were probably the original source of the virus “jumping” to humans.
So, coronaviruses are named for their appearance, they look kind of like a crown. You’ve probably seen images of them with a -- where the spikes are sticking out from the virus’ membrane. Okay, so the spike is a protein that holds the key to a lock on human cells, a protein called ACE2, that can let the virus into the cell. The structure of the spike protein makes it very good at binding to the receptor and infecting cells, which probably accounts for the ability of the current virus to spread so rapidly between people. Those ACE2 lock proteins are on the surfaces of many cells in the body, including airway cells. So breathing in acts is a way into the body, and breathing out is a rich source of virus particles that can infect others.
Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Thank you for telling us a little bit more about viruses and the history of viruses. So my next question is, how does immunity work and why don’t we have immunity against SARS-CoV-2? And what is herd immunity, and is it possible that we have herd immunity that so many people not have gotten sick because of the virus?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Oh, those are really good questions, important to understand. So, when humans or other organisms are infected by a foreign agent like a virus or a bacteria, for example, their immune system recognizes it as foreign and attacks it; fighting off the invader. There are two types of immune response. The first is an immediate one, which is not very specific, but it unleashes an arsenal of molecules that can lead to inflammation and fever and other responses that can help disable or destroy the virus.
So, in fact, the pain and fever you experience when your own immune system is trying to help you get rid of it. A second response that kicks in after a few days to weeks is the system that involves making antibodies. Antibodies specifically recognize the virus and tag it for destruction. And the cells that make these antibodies stick around for an extended period of time, and they often protect individuals from later infections by the same type of virus, as long as the genetic material doesn’t change much over time. So, this protection is called immunity.
Influenza viruses that cause the flu originally came from animals, but they’ve been circulating around for quite a while. So, humans have some immunity to them. But flu viruses change a little bit from year to year, which is why if you get the flu, it doesn’t really protect you necessarily completely from getting the flu again the following year. So that’s why you need a flu shot every year -- a flu vaccine and I’ll come back to those in a moment.
Humans have never been exposed to the coronavirus before, so we have absolutely no immunity, and we’re very susceptible to it, we can catch it very easily.
Now herd immunity refers to the situation when enough people have had the virus and are immune that the virus stops spreading in a community because there are so many dead ends, people that are immune and can’t get or spread the virus. Herd immunity depends on the virus, but it generally requires upwards of 70-80% of the people to be immune. That means in the U.S., for example, 230 to 264 million people would have to have had the virus and we’re nowhere near that yet.
Also, unfortunately, we don’t actually know whether having had COVID-19 really does mean you can’t get it again, and if so, how long this protection will last.
Now, another way of reaching herd immunity is to vaccinate people against the virus up to a level of 80% of the population. So, this involves injecting parts of the virus like the spike protein into people so that their immune systems can eventually start making antibodies that will protect them.
Since only part of the virus is injected, the virus can’t reproduce, therefore it can’t infect the vaccinated person. There are many, many vaccines currently under development, but there are also multiple levels of testing that are necessary to ensure the vaccine is safe. And then to make sure it protects against the virus. How long this will take as anybody’s guess. I’ve heard figures anywhere from 6 months to 4 years or more. I know that the quickest vaccine we ever developed was for -- against the virus that causes mumps and that took four years.
But on the other hand, that was in the 1950s, almost 70 years ago, and I don’t think there’s ever been so many scientists working on a vaccine at the same time, which will definitely accelerate the process.
Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Thank you! Now that we know a little bit more about immunity from the virus and the whole idea about the vaccines, why does the disease affect people differently?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Yeah, that’s a really important question and very strange thing about this virus. So there seems to be a higher mortality among older people and people with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, and people of color are also disproportionately suffering and dying from this virus, which is of really great concern.
So older people generally have less robust immune systems, and also they seem interestingly to have a higher number of those ACE2 receptors, the lock that lets the virus into the cell in their lower airways, which is really where the problems have been occurring mostly.
Furthermore, their other body systems may be less resilient due to their age or due to previous damage. They also have more pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, and some of the medications for these conditions seem to actually increase the levels of these ACE2 receptors, by the way, which may account partly for why these conditions correlate with worst outcomes.
So now really an important question, what about people of color?
I think this virus pandemic has shown a spotlight on health inequities that have been going on for a long time involving multiple factors. First off, people of lower socio-economic status are more likely to work in professions where working remotely is not possible and people cannot afford to stay home. Essential service industries like transportation, food businesses, delivery services, janitorial services, that kind of thing; you know, trash pickup. And these are jobs that provide more exposure to the public and thus to the virus.
Second, the prevalence of pre-existing conditions is higher among communities of color for lots of reasons, including lack of access to healthy food and good healthcare and adverse childhood experiences due to overstressed communities.
Third, testing may be less available in communities of color. These are all factors that can’t act immediately actually.
There’s also evidence that individual’s genetic makeup may influence their response to the disease. Ironically, many of the deaths are caused by overactive immune systems. And as the infection continues, the immune system continues to ramp up, sending in more cells to the lungs for instance, setting up more alarm bells that may attract even more cells, and ultimately the immune response goes crazy attacking the body’s own cells. And the tendency for this to happen may depend on particular variations and the genes that are involved in the immune system.
So, there’s still quite a lot we don’t know about this virus. At first we thought it was simply a respiratory virus that affects the lung, but as the weeks have gone on, we’ve heard about blood clots in younger patients causing strokes. We’ve heard about a disruption of the balance between blood clotting and bleeding, kidney problems, a loss of smell and taste, something like a frostbite blister in children called COVID toe, and, finally, in the last week, a rare disorder of the blood vessel linings in children that causes a type of almost like a septic shock and may be related to COVID-19. Again, there’s more to learn and we need more of you all to go into the field. So, listen up, students. Saleem?
Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Yeah. Thank you! Thanks for sharing a little bit more about the factors of why the disease affects people differently. I’m personally right now based in Florida and I’ve seen a lot of the restrictions are easing, and especially with the hot weather, there’s been a lot of speculation that COVID-19 will die down over the summer and re-emerge in the fall. Are viruses really seasonal?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Well, okay, the short answer is yes, viruses can be seasonal, the flu season, for example is early winter, early spring. Nobody is really sure why this happens, it seems like the flu virus might thrive in colder, less humid, and even windier weather. But as for coronavirus there was a study that was done of four related coronaviruses that caused more like cold-like symptoms, they’re not very severe. And that showed -- those four showed strong seasonality, it started in late December and it peaked in January, February.
However, no such seasonality was shown for the SARS -- the coronaviruses that are related to this one, the original -- so, like for example, the original SARS virus, the 2003 one or the 2012 MERS virus didn’t show seasonality. In fact, MERS is year-round in a hot climate. And also, if you look at places in the southern hemisphere that are now going through their summer, they are seeing significant infection rates, like in South America and also in Australia before social distancing had such an effect.
I am worried about what you talked about Saleem. In many places in the US right now restrictions are being removed, while infection rates are still going up And this makes me worry that we Are going to see a bump up in cases and deaths two or three weeks from now, so I think we just have to keep our fingers crossed.
Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Thank you for shedding light a little bit more about that. I was also wondering, I see that a lot of people are confused about why the virus makes leaps from animals to humans and what makes that transmission possible and why there are some animals such good carriers of viruses compared to other animals?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. Viruses probably jump back and forth often between animals that live in close proximity and humans are no exception to that. Sometimes this causes a dangerous disease like COVID-19 and others it’s probably no effect at all.
The risk of spillover of viruses to humans is highest from wild animals that are adapted to living near human populations, like rats and mice or bats and then also domesticated animals like cows, pigs and chickens. You will probably all remember the swine flu, which was caused by pigs and the avian flu, which was caused -- came from chickens. So, both the first SARS coronavirus and the current one are believed to have come from bats, maybe in the latter case from a wet market in Wuhan, China. In such markets many species of animals, both live and dead, might be packed together in a really small space and they are sharing the same air, so they are trading viruses back and forth.
Now, if a species of animal infected with a virus, if the doorway into its cells has a protein on it, that’s the lock, that’s very similar to a locked cell on a protein on human cells, the virus can move from animals to humans. And in fact, bats have often been the original source of quite a few viruses that have infected humans, and some recent research I wanted to mention proposes a really interesting model about why that might be.
So you all probably know bats are the only mammals that can fly and their metabolism is really high. So their body temperature also can often become quite elevated and the physical stress of flying means that their cells die a lot and release genetic material into the bloodstream. If this was perceived by foreign by the bats’ immune system, they would be in a constant state of inflammation. And at least one of the main communicating molecules in the bat’s immune system is present at much lower levels in 30 species of bats than in many other closely related mammal species.
So this model, based on data obtained by the researchers, proposes that viruses are able to coexist in bats as host because the bats’ immune systems are kind of tamped down. They have evolved in a way that they are less reactive and less likely to destroy the viruses.
It’s an interesting idea and I saw that a few other bat scientists think it makes sense, but I think it’s going to require more research to see whether it’s supported.
Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Okay. I think it’s very interesting to talk about how viruses affect animals and humans differently. Also I think one of the more confusing questions and discussions that everyone has been having was about masks. So really who benefits when you are wearing them and do they really protect you?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Boy, that’s a really important question and it’s an important point to understand. So there are basically two kinds of masks. There are N95 masks and there are other ones, including surgical masks and hand-sewn cloth ones. So N95 masks limit where the air can come in and they have a filter that filters out 95% of particles below a certain size; that’s why they are called N95s.
Now, a virus could get through the holes in the filter if it was all by itself, but viruses generally travel in very tiny droplets of liquid. The smallest are called aerosols that are breezed out when an infected person sneezes or coughs, talks, sings, yells, or even breathes. So, coronaviruses are filtered out by these masks.
N95 masks protect the person that’s wearing them and should be safe for healthcare workers who have a lot of direct contact with COVID patients or for immunocompromised people who must go into a crowded place.
One caveat about the N95 mask is that many of them have a raised kind of plastic cage over the filter and that means that the incoming air gets filtered, but the outgoing air does not. This is a problem. If the person wearing the N95 mask has COVID and maybe has no symptoms, is asymptomatic, then this person is exposing others unknowingly to the coronavirus.
Now, surgical masks and cloth masks and I brought one here; here is one here, hold in moisture and tiny droplets exhaled by the person wearing the mask, that’s me, more droplets are kept in, the more layers that are present in the mask and that’s why some masks have a little opening where you can actually stick number two coffee filter paper or something like that in there.
Now, these masks do not protect the wearer from coronavirus, instead it’s protecting others in case the wearer, me, has COVID-19 and doesn’t know it, for reasons that I mentioned already.
So, a healthcare worker ideally would wear an N95 mask and also wear a cloth mask or a surgical mask over it. And the same is true of immunocompromised people. For example, I have a friend who is undergoing cancer treatment and his immune system is compromised, so when he has to go out, he wears two masks like that so he can protect both himself and others.
I have seen movies of experiments done with these cloth coverings over the face and it’s amazing how many small droplets are kept in. If everyone wore their masks, it would really decrease the spread of the virus. There really are a lot of people who have no symptoms but are very infectious, in many cases they just haven’t started showing the symptoms yet and in others they just never do.
I keep remembering the Navy ship, The Theodore Roosevelt, where 4,800 sailors were tested for the virus and 600 tested positive, but of those remarkably 60% had no symptoms at all. So, wearing cloth masks is a really good idea.
Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Thanks for shedding light a little bit more about the important discussion of wearing or not wearing masks and thanks Dr. Urry for this very vital and insightful information.
We do want to take some questions from the viewers who have joined us. So, I am going to send it over to Laura for some questions that have been coming in from the audience.
Laura Howe: All right, thanks! So, we have got some good questions coming in from the audience. So one thing I thought was particularly interesting was about -- asking about if it’s possible for the virus to affect your DNA in your cells or in your body, which I haven’t heard about, but I think that’s kind of an interesting topic?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Well, that is possible, but maybe unlikely. This particular virus has RNA as its genetic material and our cells have no way of copying the RNA into DNA and then putting it into our own set of DNA, so it’s unlikely that this virus would affect our DNA at all. But I am not a virologist and I have kind of learned to stop saying that just wouldn’t happen, because everything kind of happens in biology.
So sorry, that’s a great question. I wish I knew more.
Laura Howe: Good! So, another question we have had a couple of people ask about is the virus -- can you talk a little bit about the virus mutating and like how and why that happens and what’s the possibility of that happening here?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Okay. So the virus comes inside cells and it takes over all the machinery and it makes the stuff it needs to copy its own RNA, its own genetic material to make new viruses, and every time it copies it could make a mistake.
The coronavirus, this particular coronavirus, there is only one piece of genetic material, whereas in the flu there are eight different pieces and if an animal with the flu gets infected by two different types of flu, those pieces can mix and match, but with the coronavirus, since there is only one piece, it seems like it doesn’t mutate as much as others. In fact, the protein that copies over the RNA in this coronavirus seems to have some proofreading function so that it can actually correct mistakes that it makes. So, we think so far it looks like the mutation rate is pretty low, which is promising in thinking about whether a vaccine is going to work or not.
Laura Howe: Great! So, we have had a couple of people ask what is it about this virus that makes diabetics and the obese more susceptible and makes those very difficult sort of underlying factors for this virus?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Well, that’s cutting-edge research; people are all wondering that. I gave a clue earlier when I said that some of the diabetes medications tend to increase the level of the receptor that can let the virus into cells, but there is also something I read recently too about how sugar levels in the blood. I am really interested in that question too and hopefully whoever asked it maybe can email me and I am trying to keep up on it, but I don’t think anyone has figured out yet. Obviously, anything that stresses a person’s systems and organ systems is going to be more susceptible to more drastic and severe symptoms.
Laura Howe: So one of the questions that has been pretty consistent across all of the episodes of Unwritten that we have had is a question that faculty have been asking us; now, you are a faculty member and we -- a lot of faculty members who have joined the episodes have asked how they can better support their students and I think they are looking for ideas, what do you do, how do you support students, what’s happening in your department, so I think yeah, that’s been a pretty consistent question.
Dr. Lisa Urry: Boy! I mean it’s a great question. I mean all of us are asking each other on different chats and this and that. I have the great good fortune to work with an incredibly talented group of educators in my department in Mills College and I have learned quite a lot from them.
So, the key to me is empathy and trying to put yourself in the students’ shoes. We know that remote learning is difficult or impossible for some students because they don’t have a device or they don’t have Internet or they are caring for parents that have health issues or younger siblings in a crowded house that has no place calm enough for them to go and be able to think clearly. And so, in my department we have made our classes both synchronous and also, we record them so that students who need to access them at different times can do so.
We have also been super flexible in our grading. Like for this semester we have weighted the grades in the first half more heavily than the grades in the second half.
And then one of my colleagues also designed a really cool couple of questionnaires. There were kind of simple surveys that you can administer during an online class that ask students to check off the emotions they were feeling with choices like angry, disappointed, frustrated, bored, crowded, or even grateful, okay, and the group answers were projected to the students and they were free to discuss them.
The answers were all over the place. Students are feeling so many mixed emotions, just like we are. The check-in survey allows students to have an outlet, it gives the instructor a window into what students are feeling and also it can start a conversation in the class, mostly the instructor can sit back and let the students talk, which can really change the atmosphere.
So I think the most important thing is to just try to let the students know how much you care about them and how they are doing.
Laura Howe: That’s great! So last question, I thought this was a good one. We have someone who asked, how do you think that society will change long-term due to the virus?
Dr. Lisa Urry: Well, I think some of the big factors is how unprepared so many countries were at dealing with this incredible pandemic. Biologists and epidemiologists have been warning people for so many years that something like this could happen and I think we are going to have to really take that into account moving forward.
We need to be more prepared for this next time and even to get out of this current situation, we need to ramp up testing, both for the virus and infected people and for the process, kind of the presence of antibodies and people who were already exposed previously. Once we can reliably test as many people as we need to, we will need to have a system in place to follow up on all the people that have come into contact, which is called contact tracing, quarantining until people either get the disease or are spared.
We need to have a larger, more organized public health system. And honestly, we need all you students who are out there listening, we need a lot more brains in the room, we need some help here, so please consider studying biology or psychology or microbiology or economics, one of these things that can really help out society in this time.
So, come on board everybody, that’s my final message.
Laura Howe: Well, that is a great final message and on that note we are going to throw it back over to Saleem to wrap us up.
Saleem Abu-Tayeh: Thank you Laura and thank you for your time Dr. Urry! I would like to thank everyone who joined us today. I hope this conversation was just as insightful for you as it was for me. Please remember that we are all in this together and to reach out to family and friends. We will overcome this together and come out stronger than ever. My heart goes out to everyone during this difficult time. Please stay safe and be well. Thank you!
Dr. Lisa Urry: Thanks everybody!