Kate received her bachelor in Microbial biology from University of Cal, Berkeley. She then went to study at Harvard where she graduated with her Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Virology.
Today, she works in the Bay area with a team in the forefront of science research.
I know many of us are probably tired of hearing about the virus, and maybe even a little confused/exhausted of all the information from different news source.
That's why when I heard that Kate is an expert Virologist, I got excited, and was curious to hear her take on certain questions I had about the virus. Her answers were very informative and I wanted to share it with you all.
1.) When will we see the Covid 19 virus disappear? Is that even a possibility?
It is possible to eradicate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but most experts think that it is highly unlikely to happen. The scientific journal Nature polled a panel of 118 experts in virology and immunology and 89% responded that they believed the virus would become “endemic,” meaning it would continue to circulate throughout our population. However, we live with other endemic viruses, like seasonal flu, and manage the infections every year by getting vaccinated, good hygiene practices like frequent handwashing, and avoiding others when we have symptoms.
If we did want to eradicate SARS-CoV-2, it would likely require a global campaign to vaccinate >70% of the population. As of October 11th, the New York Times Vaccination Tracker estimates that 48% of the world’s population has received at least 1 dose of a vaccine, so there are still billions of vaccine doses that would need to be administered to reach that global goal.
2.) Why are kids not affected by the virus as severely as adults?
Since the start of the pandemic, ~6 million kids have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (~16.2% of all cases), but luckily, very few have had severe disease or required hospitalization. Scientists are still actively studying SARS-CoV-2 infections in kids and don’t yet have a clear answer for why they have better outcomes. Some scientists think that children may have more recent exposure to other related coronaviruses (like the viruses that cause the common cold) which helps their immune system fight off SARS-CoV-2. Another thought is that kids might just have very strong immune systems. If you spend time with kids, maybe you’ve seen them get a cold that passes in a day or two, but left you sick for a week!
3.) Since vaccinated individuals have the defense "shield" to fight off the Covid virus--causing it not to multiply in the body such as an unvaccinated infected individuals-- is it accurate to suggest that vaccinated individuals are less likely to spread the virus even if they were infected with it?
Because it is rare for vaccinated people to become infected with SARS-CoV-2, as a group, vaccinated people are less likely to spread the virus within their communities, especially if they live in a community with high vaccination rates. However, if you are vaccinated and do become infected, you can spread the virus to others, so it’s important to quarantine and follow your healthcare provider’s advice after a positive COVID-19 test.
That said, studies on earlier SARS-CoV-2 variants (like the Alpha variant, the strain dominant earlier in the pandemic) suggested that an infected vaccinated person was less likely to transmit the virus than an infected unvaccinated person. This is because people infected after vaccination were observed to have less “live” virus in their nose than unvaccinated people. However, this observation hasn’t strictly held up when studying the newer variants like Delta. The studies are still being conducted, but early results suggest that the amount of virus an infected vaccinated person has in their nose might be more similar to that of an unvaccinated person.
This might sound alarmingly, but at the end of the day, regardless of who is transmitting the virus, vaccinated people are less likely to become infected and have much better outcomes (less severe disease, hospitalization, and death) than unvaccinated people.
4.) What's your opinion on exercising with other people that are fully vaccinated?
If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m a huge proponent of vaccination. I think if you have the choice, interacting with vaccinated people (compared to unvaccinated people) significantly reduces your risk of exposure to COVID. However, there is no preventative measure that can reduce your risk to 0%, so it’s important to consider your individual and family’s health risk—and this may require input from your healthcare provider. For some people, this might mean working out outdoors, socially distanced, or masked, in addition to being in a 100% vaccinated environment. Others may need to abstain completely. These decisions are specific to the individual and all valid.
5.) How has the media influenced the way we view this virus? As a virologist, is there something that you wish the media would cover better?
I’ve read excellent coverage about the COVID-19 pandemic from the science journalism teams at The Atlantic and STATnews. However, when I’ve seen news from some other sources or talked to my friends and family about the pandemic, my main observation has been that some media sources present new and breaking information about the pandemic as very firm—often before the scientific community has reached agreement. I think this confuses people about how they should protect themselves during the pandemic. The basics of the pandemic have not changed: the vaccines protect against all strains of SARS-CoV-2 and vaccinations along with masking, good hygiene, and social distancing are effective to stop the spread of the virus.
6.) The flu has many strains. Do you think Covid will end with the Delta strain, or will we see others in the future?
It seems clear now that we will continue to see new variants as long as the virus continues to circulate around the globe. Every time someone is infected, it is possible that a new variant will emerge. When someone is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus replicates and can mutate. Very rarely, these mutations will give the virus an advantage, for example, the ability to transmit more efficiently. If that mutant begins to spread, it can emerge as a new variant. This is another reason why getting vaccinated (if you are able) isn’t just a smart choice for your individual health, but can also prevent new variants from emerging and prolonging the pandemic.
7.) Why is there such a big concern around breakthrough cases when most people are being turned away from hospitals and being told to recover at home?
“Breakthrough infection” is the rare case when a fully vaccinated person becomes infected with SARS-CoV-2. This is expected since none of the vaccines are 100% effective. Fortunately, infected vaccinated people are 25 times less likely to be hospitalized with serious COVID.
I think people are concerned about breakthrough infections because they worry the infections mean that the vaccines are not protecting us or that a new variant is emerging. However, to date, the vaccines are effective and protect against all SARS-CoV-2 variants.
8.) How does this vaccine compare to others you have seen?
At the start of the pandemic, the FDA said they would consider approving vaccines that were demonstrated to be safe and also had at least 50% efficacy (efficacy = how well the vaccine works in a clinical trial). Both mRNA vaccines exceeded all expectations and prevented infection with ~95% efficacy. Even as more infectious variants have emerged, vaccine effectiveness has remained high (effectiveness = how well a vaccine works in the real world), preventing infection, serious disease, hospitalization, and death. Though we don’t have a specific number yet for the effectiveness of the mRNA vaccines, for context, a very successful flu vaccine will show 60% real world effectiveness.
9.) How strong is our immune response when vaccinated if we were exposed to the virus?
As everyone who got one of the mRNA vaccines knows, the vaccine is administered in two doses. The first dose exposes your immune system to a piece of the virus which will generate antibodies and T-cells that can neutralize and eliminate a virus infection. With the second dose, your immune system refines its response and importantly, gains speed and memory. After vaccination, if you do become exposed to SARS-CoV-2, your immune system can detect the virus and quickly deploy T-cells and antibodies to neutralize the virus and kill any infected cells.
A vaccine enables your immune system to learn how to detect and defeat a virus before you are exposed, otherwise your immune system is left learning on the job. We know that the vaccinated response is superior to a “naïve” immune system because vaccinated people are 8 times less likely to become infected.
Kate, this was awesome! Thank you so much for sharing such valuable insight.
Disclosure: Any information Kate shared is her opinion only and not her employer’s. Kate is not a medical doctor or trained in public health and none of the answers constitute medical advice.