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Science combats coronavirus: Susannah Gal

Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020.
Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020.
Commonwealth Media Services: Natalie Kolb

Is your head spinning from the rapidly changing situation around the coronavirus? Mine sure is.

The emerging science around the COVID-19 infection is a real-life example of how important it is to have physicians, scientists, engineers and others ready to address these types of challenges.

Last month, we had a nice presentation at the Science on Tap event about the coronavirus. Two doctors from Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center talked about a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus. They did say that there is still a lot we don’t know about the virus given that it has only appeared at the end of December 2019 and samples were available to U.S. scientists just since January.

Their upshot was to wash your hands and avoid touching your face. These tend to reduce your chance of contracting the disease and transmitting the virus if you accidently touched a contaminated surface.

While there is a lot of information around about the virus on websites managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, it may be hard to interpret what they have there and what the news media may be posting. One challenge is how the infection rate and death rate are calculated. The latter is determined as the number of deaths over the numbers infected. So, if there are 14 deaths in 1,000 people infected, that’s a 1.4 percent death rate. The challenge is that the number infected is not at all really known. So, if the actual number of people infected is really 5,000 instead of 1,000, that reduces the death rate by 5, down to 0.28 percent.

While testing for those who might be infected has been ramping up, it is still relatively limited because of the limit on the numbers of kits, labs and people able to perform the tests. Plus, many infected people are without symptoms. That makes it doubly challenging to get the real number of infected people to use as the denominator in that calculation. The national health organizations are working really hard to try to address this.

Emerging science, which this pandemic now is, can be a challenge for researchers and funding agencies alike. Researchers might be in the middle of some other work and can’t rapidly shift over to a whole new area of study. They might want to focus on the emerging science but don’t have the skills, instruments or the people that are needed for this to be successful.

This can also be a challenge for funding agencies and organizations as often the support they have for science and projects are already tied up into other types of research. Some agencies such as the National Science Foundation have special funds they can allocate to a rapidly emerging area. At the NSF, this is called the RAPID — grants for rapid response research to study an emerging scientific or science policy question.

In 2014, NSF invited proposals for Ebola-related fundamental research; in 2015, there was funding to study the disaster following the earthquake in Nepal; and in 2017, NSF used RAPID funding to study the response to Hurricane Harvey.

There is now the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund through the World Health Organization, which provides a mechanism for individuals, philanthropies and businesses to contribute to efforts to respond to the pandemic. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response has provided new funding for the development of diagnostic kits for testing people for COVID-19 infection.

While biomedical science is forefront to this, there are a number of other areas that are providing insights. Geographers and sociologists study the movement of people and their interactions which are helping drive the spread of the virus. Public policy researchers are trying to recommend policies that can help prevent the spread of the infection. And engineers are involved in making the instruments needed to evaluate the samples used to detect the infection. There are all kinds of other professionals who are part of the effort to combat, treat and deal with the anxiety around this infection.

While there are so many unknowns right now and a rapidly emerging situation, I for one am very glad for the availability of people to study these things so we can learn more about coronaviruses and prepare for infections in the future. I hope you are thankful, too.

Susannah Gal is a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at