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Experts Explore the Infection, Spread and Testing of the Novel Coronavirus

One doctor helps another into protective gear in a hospital
Jana Broadhurst, left, a clinical laboratory director and professor the University of Nebraska Medical Center, spoke about the need for testing to shape public health policies. | Kent Sievers/UNMC

A profile of the virus that causes COVID-19, its behavior, its transmission and how tests for it can inform public health policies, were provided by a panel of experts during a media briefing that drew queries from journalists.

The “COVID-19: Infection, Spread and Testing” briefing was hosted by SciLine, a service based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science that connects journalists with scientists, their research and other fact-based evidence to enrich news coverage of timely scientific topics.

The briefing was one of a series that SciLine has been hosting to provide scientific expertise to journalists in response to growing questions they are confronting about the implications of and the science behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

Held on April 10, the briefing featured Vineet Menachery, an expert in microbiology and immunology who fielded questions about viral infections; Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist, who discussed the spread of COVID-19 and the need for testing to help rein in the disease’s dangers; and Jana Broadhurst, a clinical laboratory director and professor in the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who focused on the importance of testing to shape public health policies.  

Asked whether COVID-19 will evolve in a way that could reduce someone’s immunity in a year’s time or whether a weaker viral load might deliver less protection to patients, Menachery, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said COVID-19, like other coronaviruses, is more stable than other types of viruses.

“I would not expect that in a year’s time you would have so many changes that the immunity you generate now would not protect you a year from now,” said Menachery. “The question there will be is how long your immunity lasts and how effective it is long-term.”

Separate photos of a smiling man and woman
Microbiologist Vineet Menachery, left, spoke about COVID-19. Epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo discussed the spread of COVID-19. | Menachery; Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

Nuzzo, an associate professor in two departments at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she has considered whether the country “could have avoided at least the level and extent of social distancing that we are now having to do, to play kind of catch-up in part because we weren’t testing, in part because we weren’t doing these case-based interventions from the outset,” in a response when asked whether alternative preparations by the United States could have avoided social distancing.

Broadhurst, director for the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit Clinical Laboratory,  pointed to two types of COVID-19 testing being pursued, one that detects the virus directly by studying the virus’s genetic material, known as RNA, and a second, known as serology testing, that detects antibodies that the body dispatches to fight the virus.

While neither type of test is foolproof, she said, the tests are necessary. The test results that we can provide have an important impact on public health policy both on a local and regional and national scale,” said Broadhurst. “But also, that public health policy impacts the test results that we’re able to provide. And that has to do, again, with who we test, how we test and how we allocate resources.”

The briefing series, organized by SciLine team member Mohamed Yakub and moderated by SciLine Director Rick Weiss, has assembled experts able to describe and expand on particular scientific facets and the societal implications being wreaked by COVID-19, a disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

The series began with a pair of media briefings intended to assist journalists, particularly those lacking science backgrounds, at a time when they were facing a pressing need to inform an eager public about an unknown and dangerous pandemic. “Covering Covid-19” opened the series on March 19, and Social Isolation, Mental Health, and COVID-19 followed on March 30.

“The demand from reporters seeking interviews with scientists and access to credible scientific information about COVID-19 is a bit overwhelming, but ultimately very gratifying,” Weiss said. “Especially given the wide range of journalists now detailed to the COVID-19 beat — not just science and health reporters but also local and general assignment reporters, business reporters, even sports reporters — it’s more important than ever that we and others make the facts available in clear, concise, and useful ways.”   

SciLine also plans to hold a COVID-19: Immunity and Contact Tracing” briefing on April 24 during which experts will discuss what’s known about the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and the dynamics of herd immunity, and the daunting challenge of tracking the silent spread of COVID-19. Going forward, upcoming briefings also are expected to examine disparities the pandemic is exacerbating on underserved communities, and another unpacking the results economists are gleaning from statistical models of future economic and employment trends.