COVID-19: Internationally renowned virus specialist raised in Shuswap provides hopeful news

COVID-19: Internationally renowned virus specialist raised in Shuswap provides hopeful news

Widespread testing, social distancing key to managing virus while antibodies and vaccine prepared

A former Salmon Arm resident who is renowned internationally as a specialist in the evolution of viruses has some good news to offer about COVID-19.

Dr. Michael Worobey, who grew up in Salmon Arm and graduated from Salmon Arm Secondary, is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He is widely recognized for his ground-breaking research on the origins, emergence and control of viruses such as HIV/AIDS and influenza. He has been working with scientists around the world on COVID-19.

Worobey told the Observer on April 5 that one of the key points learned so far, world-wide, is that all of the strains of the virus point back to a single event, probably in November or December last year, when the virus jumped from an animal to a human and started transmitting successfully from human to human.

“That is important because it means that, because all of the different lineages of the virus are so similar, having shared an ancestor just a few months ago, it’s very hopeful that a vaccine will be really effective against all of the different strains around the world.”

He estimates it could take one to two years to have a vaccine tested and ready. He said the longer it takes to make a vaccine, the higher the risk a single vaccine won’t work across the whole range of variants.

However, “I think it’s quite likely, if the vaccine takes, say 18 months, it will work across all the different lineages still,” he said.

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Along with a good chance of finding a vaccine that will work for all strains, another piece of positive news is that finding an interim therapy is likely.

“The hope is maybe by the fall, there might be some sort of really quite effective monoclonal antibody that you can give to people,” Worobey said. “It’s kind of like the protection you get from a vaccine; you can give it to them in one shot and it lasts a couple of months and they’re protected from infection or, if they’re already infected, it helps them fight it without dying.”

He said multiple companies are working on designing antibodies but, just like vaccines, a number of human clinical trials are required.

“I am hopeful that before the end of the year there might be a therapy or multiple therapies that are really quite good and really widely available.”

Until that happens, he emphasizes the need to keep up measures such as staying home and physically distancing.

“So hopefully we’re in a situation that maybe as early as September or October to do something like that, but in the meantime I don’t think we ‘re going to be able to let up very much on these restrictive measures without the epidemic, wherever you let those measures go, just coming back…”

Worobey also emphasizes the crucial importance of widespread testing.

“That’s really the only viable, acceptable way of fighting this. Unless you do that kind of widespread testing and widespread contact tracing and isolation, the virus is just going to infect more and more people, and it will be kind of like having a knife at our throat for at least a year if not two years until a vaccine is available.”

He said South Korea and Germany have done a good job with testing but the United States, where he lives, has not had a coordinated approach.

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“There is a concern this will still be fumbled. And again, if it is, it’s because the people who have the power to make those decisions in the federal government here in the States are just not understanding how much we are between a rock and a hard place.

“We either stay with these intolerable lock-down conditions that destroy the economy, or we release those (lock-down) measures and it (the virus) comes roaring back and hospitals are overrun with people dying in the hallways because there’s not enough ICU beds and ventilators and healthy health-care workers.

“So yes, I’m still hopeful, but time’s a’wasting.”

He’s not sure where Canada sits with testing but said the disease will likely be more manageable because social distancing measures were put in place before the epidemic became widespread. Although he hasn’t looked at genetic material from B.C. yet, he said the province took measures pretty early on and seems to have flattened the curve relatively well.

Rumours have circulated about the virus mutating and getting stronger, but Worobey said that hasn’t happened nor is it likely to.

“None of that is supported by the evidence. There’s no indication of any functional difference at all between any of the variants of the virus yet and it’s really unlikely there would be because, again, they just differ by a handful of changes.”

He said 10 or 15 mutations, at most, have been seen out of 30,000 nucleotides.

Regarding this virus and the pandemic of 1918, Worobey said one big difference is that people are social distancing. If this virus were allowed to race around the world like the one in 1918 did, he believes it would result in tens of millions of deaths.

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“The obvious thing is that it’s going to come and it will be there before people realize it and there may be people there already who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic or have symptoms…

“So you just want to take advantage of having the opportunity to really fight it with these measures that we do have at the moment, like staying at home, wearing a mask or some kind of facial covering if you do go outside – which is important because if everyone does that, then the people who don’t know they have it but are potentially able to pass it on to other people, if they have a mask, they keep those droplets from going onto people in the grocery store or the drug store.

“Try to be patient with these measures – they’re all we have right now and they are making a difference between these situations like New York, where hospitals are getting overrun and they’re having to find refrigerated trucks to store bodies and that kind of thing.

“Don’t assume that because Salmon Arm is a small town away from big centres that that can’t happen there. It certainly can and will if people aren’t being careful and doing their part to prevent transmission.“

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