Interview with a Virologist
Hello everyone. As a librarian, I'm all about getting accurate information to people. I've seen a lot of misinformation being spread around thanks to social media, so I decided to get right to the source and "Ask a Virologist" for his take on the current COVID situation. (It helps that I married one.)
So I'm turning over my blog to him to answer some questions that have been asked by friends and family of ours.
So, without further ado, here he is.
Hi world! I have been a scientist for just about 20 years. I went to an undergraduate university for four years and a semester and worked briefly in a research lab working with bat migration and then a microbe that makes people sick. I got a job as a technician (lowest position in research) for two years in another lab studying microbes that make you sick and went to graduate school for four years to study viruses. After receiving my Ph.D., I worked as a postdoctoral fellow (second lowest position in research) for another four years working on viruses. Since then I have worked in biotech for the last 5 years. I have been an author on 14 scientific papers, been a peer reviewer of 3 scientific papers, and recently have been an author on 9 patents with a 10th on the way. Notably, I was the sole author on a recent patent application. I have attended over 100 hour long seminars (about all manner of things, but mostly about viruses and how they make people sick), and attended 10 conferences (8 of which were only about viruses, and I presented my own research) I do not say this to brag, or to make you think I am smart or know everything. In fact, I know very little with certainty. I say it so you know that I am a scientist that knows how science works. It’s a concept stuck in my brain that I question, and test, and analyze, and repeat to work out truths around us. I use this thought process in too much of my life (baking, gardening, parenting, house repairs etc.). Science is not just a job to me, it’s a way of thinking about life, and nature, and how the universe works.
This pandemic has been a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me it isn’t a surprise or a mystery the way things have turned out. We have had a lot of pandemics and they all follow this same trajectory. The virus is an odd little collection of protein and nucleic acid and oil, and it is designed to do one thing: infect you (or another suitable host) and make as many copies of itself as it can. Evolution just gave it a way to do this over and over again, and that nucleic acid is designed to make it as efficient in doing that one task until there is nothing left but viruses. It’s strange to think about but it’s a truth. A virus in the right conditions will just replicate itself until there is nothing left but it. I’ve done this experiment plenty of times in the lab, add virus, add living healthy cells, and in a short amount of time all you have left is virus. Our brains are one of our best defenses against that simple mindless endeavor. That is until someone tells you that you have control over that little oil drop of nucleic acid and proteins, and you can just ignore it. That person doesn’t care much about you, your family, or friends and are you using you for some other purpose. Ever get sick? Ever wonder why you got sick? It’s a microbe that infected you and replicated over and over again until your immune system stopped it. I could go on for awhile as you can see by this quick introduction I thought to add. But just take this point to heart, COVID 19 is a virus and it is damn good at infecting humans, replicating, and infecting more humans. People get sick with COVID because another human passed virus into you. If you stop that passage of virus with a physical barrier (a mask), a large distance (6 feet is a good distance but it isn’t a magic number. 12 feet is better), or better yet an effective and safe vaccine (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson are all good ones), you not only protect yourself you protect the people you spend time with, your friends, your loved ones.
One last note- Science is not set in stone, and science experiments can not be used to answer all questions, especially involving human infections. So Scientists use a lot of ways to ask important questions (like animal models) and sometimes the answers they get are not correct when it comes to humans. For example, early on Scientists thought COVID19 would be similar to flu, another upper respiratory infection, or the first recorded Coronavirus pandemic, SARS. Turns out that was incredibly wrong because this coronavirus was very genetically different than that first SARS. Anyway onto the questions.
If I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, should I get one of the MRNA vaccines too? Will I need a booster of one of the other shots?
First question and I am going to remind everyone that we don’t have all the answers. The Johnson & Johnson shot was a more traditional vaccine approach that did a great job producing an immune response. It is not inferior to the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in any way, and although the protection numbers are different, it is really an apples to oranges comparison. The virus circulating during the Pfizer and Moderna testing were not the same strains as when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was testing a few months later. All the evidence suggests that is no reason at this time to take another vaccine. Boosters are another story and we will all need to keep watching how this goes. However, so far 6-8 months in and all the vaccines have great protection still. I won’t say that getting a different vaccine is a bad decision as it is safe and doses are freely available. Just realize it will most likely not make your immune system better suited to fight some COVID of the future, because honestly you are already at that level with the one vaccine. The real issue many of us had to face is that we just didn’t have immunity to anything like this virus. Now that we do, even mutants or variants out there won’t be a total surprise to our immune system. We now have tools to fight the infection (including all the identified variants) so we won’t get severe symptoms. There is some important considerations though. How’s your immune system? Do you have an autoimmune disorder or are you on anti-inflammatory medicine? Then you need to talk to your doctor, because your vaccine may not be providing enough of a response for your immune system. Here is a link from Johnson & Johnson about how good their vaccine is. I know it is weird to refer to a company about it’s product. You think conflict of interest right? Sure, but scientists work hard to ensure that doesn’t matter. The data from these studies are collected and reviewed by doctors, scientists, and other healthcare personal. They can’t fake results, so believe it or not, you can trust their findings. But just trust the data and conclusions they make from the data. Ignore the marketing jargon. Reference- https://www.jnj.com/positive-new-data-for-johnson-johnson-single-shot-covid-19-vaccine-on-activity-against-delta-variant-and-long-lasting-durability-of-response
How has vaccine hesitancy and lack of masking/social distancing lead to things like the Delta variant?
The virus is made up of one long ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule. The virus replicates its one long RNA molecule with a viral protein that introduces about 1 mutation into each daughter RNA molecule that turns into a new virus. Virus mutations are just a natural part of what viruses do. Once this virus jumped from a wild animal (maybe a bat) into a human it replicated and made mutations. Some of those mutants or variants could infect better, make more virus, make virus longer, make virus that pass from person to person better. Then the pandemic happened and we had 200 million infections (to date, but this is lab confirmed cases so probably just a few more infections happened). So the end of 2019 and all of 2020, the virus was producing virus from more than 100 million infections. That is where the Delta and the Lambda and all the other variants arose. Delta variant and Lambda variants were identified by sequencing in December of 2020 (well before there was a vaccine to be hesitant about). Vaccine hesitancy and just the virus infecting people right now is going to give rise to more variants in the future, sure, but those 15 plus months without a vaccine were a real problem and the not quarantining and the political fight over wearing masks and you know the rest. That is where you had the most virus produced and so the most variants produced. No references for this one, because they are all just basic virology reviews, but if you are interested google viral quasi species, the wiki page for that is pretty good actually - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viral_quasispecies
Is there any word on when there will be a vaccine for children younger than 12?
Pfizer and Moderna have enrolled children 6 months to 12 years old in vaccine studies. These studies take longer because kids need less of a total dose (as their bodies are smaller) than adults. So they have to test a few doses to find one that works well. The studies are fully enrolled, and I know the White House is hoping the emergency approval could come in as early as the Fall. Here is one of my soap boxes. Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna are companies and they have VERY limited resources. I applaud them both for jumping on the vaccination of a new virus out of China infecting a few hundred people in JANUARY of 2020. That’s not a typo. This is 2 months before cases in the US were identified (but turns out COVID19 was already in the states well before March https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/72/12/e1004/6012472). So both companies ramped up vaccine research and by the summer of 2020 were putting shots in the arms of adults. This cost both companies millions of dollars, with a risk that if the vaccine failed they would recoup nothing. Moderna was basically a startup company at the time, so it would bankrupt the company. So why not also run those same studies in children ages 12- 18 or 6 months to 12 years old? I mean I am a parent, and I know kids spread illnesses through their family. Vaccinating adults is fine and all, but the pandemic is going to persist if kids can still get sick. If the vaccine didn’t work in those adult studies, and there was a chance the vaccines could be useless in adults, then they would have wasted their money on the studies with kids. So, this is a great place for a federal government to step in and cover the costs for the studies with children. We are the biggest economy in the world and we could have easily run studies in all age groups concurrently. If the vaccine failed in all age groups the government is out several million dollars (drop in the bucket). But obviously this gamble paid out big. Just think if everyone ages 6 months to 99 years could have gotten vaccinated starting in April or earlier of this year. In my opinion, the federal government failed us by not doing this. In fact, the US government essentially ignored this vaccine development, and only several months into the pandemic (I’m talking May/June 2020) did the US government promise to buy an unknown amount of vaccines once they were made. Again no money to help develop the vaccine up front just a promise that the US would buy the vaccine at the end of the day. And of course this slowed production of the vaccine because this is actually a time and place to investigate resources to fix a major problem. So, both companies spent money up front to jump start this research. Think about that for a minute. Federal government had really no plans on what to do about this pandemic. Two biotech companies Moderna and Pfizer/BioNtech gave us a life saving vaccine in 2020.
Are we permanently stuck with Covid? Will it become like the flu with annual shots or is there hope we can get rid of it?
Bill Gates predicted that COVID will be essentially gone from the US at the end of 2021, and from the world at the end of 2022. After computers, Bill Gates got into infectious disease and started the Gates Foundation. He is smarter than me, so I will just quote him and leave it at that. COVID is not Flu. Comparing the two is just for journalists or politicians. Do you get annual shots for Poliovirus? Or Rotavirus? Or Measles? Or Hepatitis B? Or Small Pox? Or Chicken Pox? Or Human Papillomavirus? Noticing a trend yet? Influenza is one hell of a clever virus. It infects chickens, and water fowl, and pigs, and guiena pigs, and ferrets, and humans. It is infecting chickens and water fowl and pigs right now. Those animals are interacting with people and will cause them to get sick and start a new pandemic with a new virus. It’s a new virus every year. (Bill Gates reference- https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/26/bill-gates-on-when-he-thinks-the-world-will-be-back-to-normal.html). Again COVID is not flu.
What do you think about a booster for those of us who received the 2 shot doses? How long can we expect efficacy for the shots we have?
All the vaccines are still producing great levels of antibodies that are neutralizing. Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna are studying vaccine volunteers from their studies. So like a canary in the mines, they will know when the vaccines start to wane well before the rest of us, as the volunteers got vaccinated in July and August of 2020. So again keep listening to the news, but no reason for us to worry about this right now. (https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-confirm-high-efficacy-and-no-serious or https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-confirm-high-efficacy-and-no-serious) These references are for 6 months but I have seen 8 months we are still good too.
How is the Delta Variant affecting children who are too young for vaccines or masks? Is it worse for those youngsters?
Delta virus is more infectious, and produces more virus in infected individuals. That's one reason why it is the dominant variant. It does look like it is worse in everyone without vaccines no matter the age. Kids under the age of 18 are still very resistant to extreme symptoms, hospitalization, and complications.
If vaccination rates aren’t high enough, is it reasonable to think coronavirus can mutate so much as to render the current vaccines ineffective?
This is a great question. It is really a numbers game. The virus is infecting people and producing new mutants. The more infections and viruses produced the more chances to render the vaccine less effective. BUT we have had 200 million documented infections. There is evidence that this is only about 10 % of all infections so maybe as many as 2 billion infections in the world. That’s a lot of viruses and a lot of chances for a mutant to render the current vaccine ineffective. Chances that the mutant is going to rise with a drastically decreasing population to infect means the numbers are on our side. Also, the vaccine protection isn’t an all or nothing thing. We are already sort of seeing that the Delta variant can still infect people vaccinated against the alpha variant (the first circulating one that the vaccine is based on).
If someone tells you the vaccines aren’t safe, how would you explain the process used to development these vaccines?
The virus isn’t safe. It inserts a mRNA into your cells to produce all the viral proteins it needs to make new virus particles, spread to new cells, and new individuals. The virus spreads in your body from cell to cell, and eventually person to person. Your chances are not great against COVID. The vaccine uses the virus against itself. It has a small RNA that is in most aspects the same as a part of the viral mRNA. It makes a small piece of the viral protein and causes an immune response. Once the cell with that RNA molecule dies, that mRNA and viral protein degrades. It’s gone. No more vaccine, just an immune response in its place. Thinking that the vaccine is so new that no one understands how it works or what side effects could result is a bit of nonsense. RNA has been studied for 100 or more years. People have been studying immune responses and vaccinations for longer. The government tracks food outbreaks with just a few dozen people getting sick. The vaccine is closely followed for complications. Remember hearing about those two nurses with allergic reactions to the vaccine? If vaccines had a real health risk, we would already be reading about it.
Do you think it’s safe for unvaccinated children to go back to school without a mask mandate? How safe are children who wear a mask but are in classrooms with teachers or other kids who don’t?
I think every parent knows kids get sick from school. They bring it home and their parents get sick. Wearing a mask would help to reduce how many kids will get sick. Those are just the facts. I don’t see any reason to not make children wear masks at school. Kids wear protective gear in sports because there is a risk they will get hurt and that gear minimizes that risk and protects them in case they do get hurt. Just my opinion on this one. It’s really a sticky situation.
I just don't understand why I would want a shot, which may or may not make me sick, and yet still may or may not be able to contract or carry a virus even if I get it.
Well first off, your immune system makes you sick, because it is working on protecting you from a life threatening infection. That complication from the shot is a one day thing. Getting infected with COVID can result in months of illness, possibly months on a ventilator or an artificially induced coma. A vaccine seems a pretty easy choice to me.
Also, what makes this one supposedly unable to even build your own immunity to?
Building your own immunity starts with getting an infection. In this case, the infection gives you a pretty high risk of severe disease and a pretty high risk of death. The body isn't naturally immune to something it hasn't encountered before. The vaccine provides the body with the ability to recognize that the virus is something it needs to fight before it gets overrun.
Can you explain how masks are really doing anything?
I think the best thing I can say is to wear a mask and blow out a lit match. That basically demonstrates how it works. The little saliva drops that you expel with every breathe get caught up in the fibers, and your breath doesn’t travel to that next person to infect. It isn't 100%, just like things such as birth control methods and drug treatments aren't 100%. It's a relatively easy layer of protection we can add to try to prevent the virus from traveling around freely.