At the family dinner table, viruses were "shop talk." Now my dad is working on a coronavirus vaccine—and talks social distancing, what keeps him going, and unprecedented global collaborationby Kate Young / March 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
Our family talked science around the dinner table. With a father and stepmother working in virology and diagnostics, “shop talk” was virus talk. My sister Luce and I would roll our eyes, and drift off into our own discussions. We’re lucky to have been relatively robust and healthy kids; we had the necessary vaccines, whined about being stuck with needles, and then promptly forgot about them. We moved far away from home, and left behind those dinner table conversations.
But, in the past couple of months, I’ve been calling dad more often, begging him to talk shop. After a career spent on viruses I’d heard of but rarely saw in the news, dad is now heading up one of the 30-something teams around the world who are on-track to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, the virus at the heart of the global pandemic that means you are almost certainly reading these words from self-isolation. After our calls, I’d share his knowledge and milestones with select friends, and we’d reassure ourselves with news from his lab.
With the developments in the past week, I felt like the circle of select friends I was reassuring could afford to be widened a bit. And so, with dad’s OK, I WhatsApped him as he made a coffee after dinner, and recorded our conversation.
Dad, you’ve been working with vaccines for 44 years now; in what ways does this feel different?
I’ve had a fairly wide-ranging career in many aspects of virology, but all of it has been at my own pace. What’s different this time is that we have a challenge: a challenge that presents a real and present threat to the global population.
We’ve been working towards this for almost eight years now, trialling versions of this specific vaccine delivery system [the molecular clamp technology] with a number of different virus systems and groups, looking at how effectively we might be able to develop a generic approach to vaccine design.
What’s different now is that we have an endpoint we have to get to in what will turn out to be a record time for a vaccine.
A lot of the tangents we used to go down—the rabbit holes of discovery research that are typical of a laboratory—are not the ones we’re taking. We’re incredibly focused, with that singular goal in mind.
Everything is changing incredibly quickly at the moment, and it’s difficult to predict what the next year looks like. But in a best-case scenario, what do you hope for?
I am a great believer in flattening the curve—that’s really important. The reasoning is very simple: through appropriate public health measures, you’re minimizing the rapid spread of the virus through the community.
If you do that, you will prevent a huge load of individuals presenting to a medical infrastructure that just doesn’t have the capacity to deal with those numbers.
At the very earliest, I don’t see vaccines, even under very accelerated conditions, being available within twelve months. And so, a vaccine may not impact this first wave.
Where it probably will have an impact is in a second wave. All the pandemics we’ve seen in the past, which includes the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, have seen a second and even third wave of infection. We may ultimately see this virus establishing itself as one of the many respiratory infections we all encounter each winter season.
In the meantime, people are working on other therapeutic approaches. In many labs and through clinical trials around the world right now, people are repurposing drugs—taking drugs that are functional for other reasons—and they’re testing them on Covid-19. Our vaccines are the best plan, in terms of prevention, but if we don’t have them by the end of the year, then the next best thing is looking to therapeutics, in addition to public health measures we’ve already been instigating.
In terms of colleagues outside your lab, what’s the community like?
Lately, most of my evenings are filled with teleconferences. The scientific community is incredibly connected across international borders. For example, we’re part of the Global Viral Network (GVN), which is very much at the heart of collaboration.
These are people who are united not through any funding mechanism, but purely through their own desire to contribute to the current global effort. It’s people contributing their expertise, in terms of ideas about protocols and research, but also offering their own facilities to do testing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this level of collaboration, not on quite on this global scale, where everybody realises that this is an urgent problem and we all need to contribute in an equitable fashion.
Everyone here is pushing for a vaccine that can be used, with equitable access to all, for humanitarian use. We’re getting an incredible level of engagement right across academia, NGOs, regulatory authorities, small biotechs, big pharmaceutical companies—everyone is working together.
Are you in touch with labs around the world that are developing other vaccines?
There are a number of other people heading down the vaccine path who attend the GVN meetings, and we share what we’re experiencing. We have, in fact, been talking with other vaccine manufacturers, one in particular in the UK.
We’ve actually been thinking that a combined approach—to use their vaccine and our vaccine—may work very well. So, it’s not only going to the level of sharing and collaboration, it’s perhaps going to the level of joining forces, and taking forward a different approach.
That’s what you’re doing; what should we be doing as individuals, a part of this global community, be doing?
Don’t panic. Panic never leads to sensible decisions.
We should be following the public health measure guidelines that have been put out already, about physical/social distancing—I’m not a fan of the term social distancing; I prefer physical distancing, but continued social engagement—about washing your hands, and not greeting people with a handshake.
It’s very difficult for the virus to survive outside the body; physical distancing is therefore incredibly efficient, as is hand washing.
One recent paper, published not long after the start of COVID, looked at the incidence of respiratory infection generally in the Singapore population. Those simple public health measures led to unbelievably precipitous drops in influenza and other respiratory infections.
These are lessons we can take into the future. Obviously, we don’t want to keep physical distancing as a major part of our lives, but I think there are some behaviours we could change in terms of minimizing that spread. Maybe it’s the end of the handshake as we know it? Everyone can do fist-bumping instead—a robust knuckle hit.
For people trying to avoid the clickbait/social media news cycle at the moment, what do you recommend they start reading?
What I read are colleagues who I trust. I think they give good information in a digestible form but, like me, they’re scientists, and might be a bit difficult to access.
The best information in terms of disease reports and advice, is probably the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) website in the US. It’s always had a reputation for being very sensible and down to earth, because it’s meant to be for public consumption. That and the WHO (World Health Organisation) site, of course.
Finally, what is keeping you positive and upbeat at the moment?
The obvious thing is the knowledge that we as a group are making a difference. There’s also the collaboration and the willingness of all of our colleagues to share both tangible products and expertise. Science has always been collaborative, but I think it’s reached a next level with this global outbreak.
From a community perspective, the grade five class in a local Brisbane school who decided, as an act of philanthropy, that they would have a movie night, the proceeds of which they wanted to send to the UQ Vaccine Research Group. What they did is demonstrate that they were great global citizens, and I feel very confident about the future with young girls like that.
And personally: our neighbours, a retired couple, Marg and Doug. They noticed us returning home late and know of the work that we’re doing. Over the last week, Marg has come to our door with a baked cake or some biscuits, and then a casserole. It’s that level of community engagement and support that really moves you.