Empirically Yours

Letter From a Scientist to SARS-CoV-2


Well, you’ve done it. You’ve spread beyond China to every state in the U.S. and most countries on Earth. You’re a celebrity!

As a virus you’re not alive. You are nothing but a small set of mutable genes wrapped up in a protein envelope. But you’ve demonstrated how rapidly you can spread through a population of susceptible hosts. Us.

You are a non-living example of evolution in action. Some people are upset and threatened by that word but you and I know it is quite real. It’s your thing, your strategy, your modus operandi, and wow does it work.

Your success should teach deniers a lesson. With a few random changes to a couple of genes, such as your coat protein called “the spike,” and a playground like the live animal markets in Wuhan, it’s easy for you to hop from one species to another. In that market you hopped from one host (maybe a bat) to people. Presto!

You’ve got it all — a large number of people infected; your infectivity from person to person is extremely high; and your geographic range is now the entire planet! By these measures, you are a successful, professional-grade virus, right up there with Ebola.

I think it likely you will become entrenched on this planet, just like influenza, measles, polio and a few other viruses, given the near impossibility of vaccinating all 6 billion of us. Vaccination can only slow you down in countries with good health care systems and where people take you seriously.

Did you know that some of the first vaccines against you are already being tested in a clinical trial right here in Washington? Yep, Kaiser Permanente Washington Research in Seattle, which has a long history in developing vaccines, opened a clinical trial to the general public in March.

OK, be honest now: Aren’t you a little surprised at how quickly we started on a vaccine against you? Want to know how we did it? Well, this is 2020 and “there’s an app for that.” We don’t use whole virus or even a complete virus protein, like they did in the past. Nowadays, all we need is a bit of information (your SARS-CoV-2 DNA sequence), and we got that last December from China. We learned from your ancestors SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV what region of your spike protein provokes the strongest immune response. So, since we already had your complete sequence, plus we knew that your spike protein was the best target, it was a cinch to make a new-style vaccine.

If this vaccine works as well as others of this type, it will quickly stimulate a recipient’s immune system to make antibodies that adhere tenaciously to your spike proteins. That corona (crown) you’re so proud of then becomes a beacon to the immune system and you are irreversibly marked for obliteration by the immune cells of the vaccinated person. I don’t know for sure, but I’d predict that there may be some results from this safety test by the end of the second or third quarter of 2020.

Sadly, we knew that we had to go through this process because the existing vaccines for 2003 SARS and MERS are useless against you. Another lesson here is we will have to begin a surveillance system to look for you and your cousins each year as you change, just as we do now for influenza viruses. Other clinical trials this year and next will confirm and extend the results from the trial I described, which is why this or any other vaccine found to be safe and effective and scaled up will take a year total to roll out.

Spoiler alert, SARS-CoV-2. Even while vaccine tests are in progress, so are drug therapies. Gilead’s drug Remdesivir may block your ability to copy your genome and early studies have shown it is largely free of side effects. It’s being tested right now in China on patients with COVID-19. The World Health Organization is planning a large trial of different promising drugs against you, including one for Remdesivir.

Does it flatter you to hear that hundreds of clinical trials emerging around the world are fighting for participants? If even one of these drugs can be combined with a vaccination, you don’t stand a chance. The brightest scientists are pursuing a vigorous campaign against you.

I’ve got to say you’ve revealed some embarrassing failures in our leaders and ourselves. A lot of us just didn’t want to believe the danger was real; that you are 10 to 20 times as lethal as influenza; that people without symptoms of COVID-19 can spread the virus; that people who recover from the disease can also spread the disease; that community spread is real and continues; and that sluggish action at the federal level early on made the situation worse.

As a professional-grade virus, I know you don’t care, but you had help killing us.

Richard Gelinas, Ph.D., whose early work earned a Nobel prize, is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Systems Biology. He lives in Lakebay.