Interview: Professor Dave O’Connor chats about Discovery's new show Pandemic: COVID-19
PANDEMIC: COVID-19, a one-hour Discovery special offers an in-depth look at the pandemic sweeping the globe. We got to chat about some of these concerns with Dave O’Connor, Professor of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who features in the documentary.
When do you expect the COVID-19 scourge to end, and when do you expect the deaths to stop?
Once a new disease gets a foothold, it will likely be with us for years, or longer. HIV emerged in the early 20th century and spread widely, starting in the 1980s. Despite intensive research, it is still with us more than 40 years later, even if many of us don’t think about it every day.
Sadly, this means that COVID-19 will likely be causing deaths for years, though once we understand more about the virus, how to prevent it, and how to best treat it, the number and frequency of deaths will be reduced. This might, however, take years.
Is a complete global lockdown the best solution to contain the pandemic?
We need to learn to live with the virus, not to be defined by it. An indefinite lockdown isn’t sustainable, but it is essential in the short-term to give a chance for medical mask production, PPE production, testing, and health systems to catch up.
Why didn’t people, including so many world leaders, take this seriously at first?
There are threats we all face every day. A new virus could be jumping from animals to people right now, somewhere in the world. I can’t speak of India, but I was in South Africa in late-January, and the situation in China dominated the international news coverage. People certainly were taking it seriously while Wuhan, a huge city, was shut down.
Why leaders in other parts of the world, including in the United States, where I live, didn’t rush to improve preparedness, is something only they can answer. On an individual level, I asked my wife to start buying and storing extra food and water in our house in January, and encouraged friends and family to start doing the same a few weeks later.
Give us a take on the research and possible breakthroughs for the curing and suppressing of COVID-19.
It takes time to take ideas to products to people. Remember that no one in the world knew anything about this virus 20 weeks ago! The small studies of drugs in a few people will be followed by larger, randomised trials of the most promising drugs by the middle of the year. Some of these might work, others will likely fail. We won’t know until we do the studies, which unfortunately takes time to design, perform, and analyse.
How is it possible that even doctors and nurses are falling victim to the virus?
It is relatively easy to protect healthcare workers from some viruses, such as HIV, that are serious but spread through the blood or sexual contact. It is much harder to protect from respiratory viruses like COVID-19 that spread through droplets in the air.
Patients are breathing viruses out and healthcare workers are inhaling them. Even with good personal protective equipment, it is hard to achieve 100% protection. Unfortunately, in the United States and elsewhere there have been shortages of the most effective protective equipment, requiring healthcare workers to treat patients without the best possible equipment.
Do you believe human genetics will evolve to cope with something like COVID-19? Is it possible that our children will be immune to viruses like this by a naturally evolved genetic order?
No, but I think we will learn to live with it as a society, in much the same way as we live with the threat of influenza, HIV, Ebola virus, Zika virus, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, etc. We will learn how to cope with it better, how to recognise when it is a threat, and concentrate efforts on those who are at greatest risk, just like we do for all these other viruses.
And there will also be researchers like us trying to make vaccines, and understanding what a successful immune response to the virus looks like so that we can prevent infections by “training” our body’s immune systems.
Give us your take on essential activities that we need to follow to stay fit and healthy.
Physical activity is hugely important. A healthy diet, frequent exercise, and general well-being is something that everyone can work on today. COVID-19 can infect everyone, and there are definitely cases of healthy people becoming very sick and dying, but much of the serious illness is in people who have pre-existing conditions and are generally unhealthy. A healthy lifestyle is an important part of overall health and wellbeing.
Which country in your view is dealing with the pandemic in the best possible way?
New Zealand is doing an excellent job of both strictly enforcing physical distancing, and communicating risk to its population. They are a small, affluent country, so their approach might not scale out to a large country like the United States, but there are certainly lessons that we can learn from their effective response.
Does it seem like this virus has almost overshadowed other diseases — be it cancer, AIDS or diabetes? Can we ever regain faith in medical science?
Those other acute and chronic diseases are very much still with us! I think it is dangerous to put faith in medical science or specific scientists, but we can and should trust the data. The data is what we should use to inform our decision-making about the best path forward. And more data from public health researchers to spot and manage disease outbreaks when they are small is critical.
COVID-19 reminds us all how dangerous infectious diseases can be, and the importance of dealing with outbreaks when they are small. Just like it is easier to blow out a candle than extinguish a forest fire, we stand the best chance of avoiding pandemics if we respond to them aggressively and early.
Would you like to share a few personal thoughts about family time, taking care of children, and spending time in nature, with a message for our readers?
My wife, who is also a scientist, and I live with our 11-year-old son and a dog. Working from home and schooling from home is a challenge; I haven’t spent four weeks barely leaving my house…ever! I am lucky, though, in that most of my research can be organised with computers and the internet, with my lab staff going into the lab to conduct experiments.
A big part of an effective response to COVID-19 is to do your part, whatever that is. If you can stay home, that means someone else whose job does not allow them to stay home can be out in public without worrying about getting sick from you. If you need to be out in public, wear a mask even if you feel OK. It might protect others from your saliva and droplets if you are infected but don’t know it, but it also sends a powerful message that we are all in this together.
Watch Pandemic: COVID-19 on Discovery, Discovery HD and Discovery Plus.
— Jaideep Sen