On May 14th, a Q/A session on COVID-19 hosted by MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, and Achievement) was held via Zoom. It featured Professor M. Elizabeth ‘Betz’ Halloran, the Director of the Center for Inference and Dynamics of Infectious Diseases (CIDID), based at Fred Hutch and the founder and Director of the Summer Institute in Statistics and Modeling in Infectious Diseases (SISMID) at the University of Washington. Her research encompasses a wide variety of infectious diseases and vaccines including malaria, influenza, dengue, cholera, meningitis, Ebola, chikungunya, rotavirus, and Zika. Prof. Halloran is currently working with the World Health Organization and the US federal government on strategies to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The event focused on COVID-19 and how the world together is trying to overcome it.
The meeting opened up with the Director of MESA, Marilyn Saavedra-Leyva, introducing the participants to Prof. Halloran and warming up to the topic of COVID-19 with questions about whether or not the disease is airborne, if we could be carriers of the virus without knowing it, and if we’ve seen this in other viruses before where the symptoms are so broad. Prof. Halloran confirmed that the disease is, indeed, airborne. She elaborated that it primarily spreads through respiratory droplets when a person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Halloran also explained that there are two ways of being asymptomatic. One way is that the person transmits the disease before they realize they have the disease. The other way is that the symptoms never show up and the disease goes away by itself. She stressed that masks are important because they can prevent the spread.
Addressing the breadth of the presenting symptoms of COVID-19in comparison to other viruses, Halloran agreed that there is a wide range of symptoms for COVID-19. Like the flu, symptoms include coughing, fatigue, and fever. However, Halloran stated that there are ways to differentiate the two viruses. While people with the flu can experience symptoms within 1-4 days, those with the coronavirus will have them within 1-14 days. However, according to research, the median incubation period for coronavirus is 5.1 days.
Prof. Halloran stated that one of the problems they have is how they’re going to harmonize these vaccine trials. There are two major groups, the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO), both trying to figure out how to design the trials. Halloran explained that they were trying to avoid having every company doing their own thing. What they are trying to figure out is the primary endpoint of the trial. Halloran informed us that having two different endpoints is not good. It was decided that the laboratory-confirmed symptomatic disease would be the main endpoint and infection with or without symptoms would be the secondary endpoint.
Another participant asked how we are going to make enough vaccines for everybody. Prof. Halloran explained that the production facilities needed will depend on what kind of vaccine works out best. She said that governments and private funders should support vaccine manufacturers.
The meeting ended with Prof. Halloran talking about the countries most at risk for localized outbreaks, even as things have more or less settled down in Wuhan. She mentioned that there would be more testing kits available going forward. Marilyn and the MESA team thanked everyone who tuned into the event and bid everyone a good evening.