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The View from the Virologist

A Rutgers expert on viruses discusses COVID-19

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Colm Atkins has long been fascinated with viruses. As a research associate and lab manager working under Brian Daniels, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Atkins is part of a team that studies how the central nervous system coordinates immune responses to infection and injury.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, Atkins, who earned his PhD in biochemistry and molecular genetics from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has become an oft-quoted source in the science and popular press, helping the public to understand how the coronavirus works. In the interview below, he continues that effort.

colm webQ: What is your research focus?

A: My interests are in the interactions between viruses and hosts within infected people and animals, particularly the back and forth measures as the virus starts running its programs and the host cell responds.


Q: When did you first hear of COVID 19?

A: Sometime in late 2019 or early 2020. I follow a lot of other virologists on Twitter, and it started to bubble up through that and ProMED-mail, a service that infectious disease clinicians and researchers use to disseminate breaking information.


Q: COVID-19 has been described in the media as a “once-in-century pathogen.” What makes it different from other viral health threats?

A: I would push back a little bit in describing it in those terms. Certainly, it is a pandemic, and we see the danger: It has respiratory spread, and the potential for moving in and among human populations fairly easily.

But these kind of zoonotic viruses that move from animals to humans probably happen much more than we know about. There are always periodic emergences or re-emergences of infectious disease, such as influenza jumping to and fro from migratory water fowl. So COVID-19 is not this black swan thing the way some people are describing it that couldn’t be anticipated or that happens once every hundred years. From a science perspective, there is nothing unique. Viruses spread well. That’s what they do.


Q: Why then has  COVID-19 had a much larger global spread and infected more individuals than the SARS and MERS viruses?

A: Some of the research that’s in progress points to a couple of possible answers. The COVID-19 infection causes high viral loads in the upper respiratory tract, which basically means there’s more virus high up in your lungs, near where you can easily cough it out. So if it’s easier to get out, it’s easier to spread. 

Another factor is the potential for infected people to transmit the virus while asymptomatic. So, suppose someone gets infected. After eight hours, the person is not feeling symptoms, but the virus is just wrapping up its first replication cycle. Two days later, through replication, they have a lot more of the virus, but maybe only have a throat tickle. They take a cough drop and go about their day. There you have it: Sufficient time to accumulate enough virus to spread, but not enough pathology to produce the signs you should stay home.

Besides the virological factors, there has also been the scattershot and uncoordinated response in a lot of countries, such as not having sufficient testing capacity, and a lack of basic safety net social structures: access to health care, paid sick leave, and easier food support. These are the type of structures that, when in place, make it easier for people to stay home sick.


Q: Is there a lasting public health lesson?

A: Besides the safety net structures I mentioned, there is the seeming political influence of the messaging from the executive branch of the federal government. I think it’s important to let public health and epidemiological researchers do their job without having to gauge how their statements are going to impact the stock market.


Q: What is the potential for rapid development of a vaccine?

A: People may have an unrealistic expectation of vaccine development because the new flu vaccine comes out every year. But that is planned months in advance and it is a well-developed platform and a well-developed manufacturing set up and licensure. Developing a new vaccine, if you are lucky, is an 18-month to two-year process.


Q: You have mentioned in previous interviews about how knowledge is being shared more rapidly through social media. Is this cause for hope?

A: Yes. I follow a lot of scientists on Twitter. And a lot of work is being posted in preprint form in breaking news format where everything is written up as rapidly as possible and put out so the information is out there. Then it will go through the standard publication process, but it’s out there for the field to cite and evaluate it before it goes into the traditional pathway. This is not the first we’re seeing this, but it has reached a new level.


Q: Do you have any thoughts on how long it will take to contain the virus. Do you see a time when the social distancing directives can be relaxed?

A: It’s not my area of expertise, but all of the people I know with actual expertise on this agree it’s far too early to start loosening these restrictions. I would say we need to think of this in months, not in weeks. Sheltering in place is still absolutely warranted, and so is physical distancing.