Today we begin with a key questions about coronavirus and a chief scientist on the frontlines. He’s John Dye, head of viral immunology at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where they usually research biological countermeasures for warfare, but have turned their urgent attention to the civilian mission at hand.
Sharyl: Can you take me back to when you heard there was a coronavirus that was going to be an emergency situation in this country, what you thought and then what happened immediately?
John Dye: Yeah, so I would say the first I heard of it was when the outbreak occurred in Wuhan and there was information that was coming out of Wuhan and China about this coronavirus. So I was familiar with coronaviruses before from SARS-1 and MERS, and there are other four coronaviruses that are actually circulating in the population, the United States population, on a yearly basis, they just aren't lethal.
Sharyl: What makes this one so different?
Dye: So it has to do with the genetic makeup of this particular virus. So those coronaviruses that are circulating in human population, they actually have been in humans for a long, long time. This particular coronavirus jumped from an animal species out of that species and spilled over into humans. Those are the type of viruses that are possible pandemics or epidemics that can lead to large scale lethality. So when you have something that goes from an organism that it is normally living in and pops into the human population, those are the type of viruses that we have to be worried about.
Sharyl: If there are people who've watched the news and tried to get information that they don't understand, what makes this so different? Because they know a lot of people die of the flu every year. What would you say is the answer to that?
John: I would say that it's the transmission rate, how much it is transmitting from one person to the next. So the transmission of the flu is normally about on a scale of what they call it, two, which means if I have it, I can spread it to two people. They're talking about this particular virus as if I have it, I can spread it to four people. So you're talking about doubling that and when you exponentially create that out, it provides a much larger web of infection.
Sharyl: So is it accurate to say, even if it turned out to be killing people at a rate similar to flu, if it's reaching more people faster, there could be more deaths with coronavirus?
Dye: That's exactly right. So you would have more lethality because it's reaching more people more quickly, and then you also have to take into consideration the load that that then puts on the hospitals and the first care responders to being able to respond to that. You may not have enough equipment to allow you to be able to respond to a widespread infection.
Sharyl: Can it be transmitted through what they say aerosol, like a spray that hangs in the air?
Dye: So it depends on who you ask. We're still learning about this virus. It takes years to actually figure out questions like you're asking right now. There are some studies that have shown that it can last in the air up to five to seven hours. There are other studies that show that it's only in the large droplets, so therefore it's dropping out of the air very quickly. So is it a true aerosol as opposed to a fomite in those droplets? We don't really know the answers right now and sometimes it's more dangerous to put on information that we don't know that for sure scientifically is backed.
Sharyl: Is it likely that a lot of Americans, perhaps millions have already had coronavirus, this strain, and are immune to it, they just didn't know they had it?
Dye: It's possible. Most likely not from something before this particular outbreak. I believe that there are probably a lot of people that are walking around right now that had this particular SARS-2 coronavirus and their immune response responded, they controlled the infection and they were asymptomatic. So I think what is needed is widespread epidemiology, which is the study of your serum to see did you see the virus, are you responding to the virus? So therefore you know that most likely if you got infected again you would not succumb or have any deleterious effects.
Sharyl: If something like this were to happen again with a different virus, would we have to go through this all over again?
Dye: So if it's a totally different virus, we would. But I would hope that what we would do is we learn from this particular outbreak and this particular pandemic so that we would be better prepared for the next virus that comes along. So there's a preparedness office in the United States called ASPR that actually is responsible for this. I would hope that we would have that office in place so that we're able to respond to any pathogen that comes out of the woods.
The Army researchers say they are partnered with more than 100 pharmaceutical companies and academic research institutions on their medical work.