David S. Roos on the future of COVID-19

The E. Otis Kendall Professor of Biology and infectious disease specialist discusses the virus, its variants, and vaccines in a Q&A.

As information about potentially more virulent strains of COVID-19 continues to emerge, David S. Roos, the E. Otis Kendall Professor of Biology who studies and teaches infectious disease biology, viruses, and parasites, discusses how concerned Americans should be about variants. Even for an infectious disease expert, COVID-19 has produced some surprises.

Selfie of David Roos in front of two desktop computer monitors and a laptop.
David O. Roos, E. Otis Kendall Professor of Biology. (Image: Courtesy of David O. Roos)

“Perhaps the biggest surprise, which we still don’t understand, is why some people get very sick or die, while others don’t,” says Roos. “There are some theories about inappropriate immune responses, including so-called cytokine storms, and there’s some evidence for viral engagement with other aspects of human pathology, but there’s still a lot to learn about the disease processes caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes COVID-19.”

When it comes to emerging COVID-19 variants, Roos sees patterns in our own cells. “Am I inherently concerned about viral variation? Not necessarily. Nearly every virus is likely to be slightly different than its parents. The same is true for our cells. We have trillions of cells in our body, and each one is likely to have acquired minor mutations compared with its parents—typographical errors, if you will,” he explains. “Mutant viruses occur all the time as they replicate, but usually fail to significantly affect function. As more and more mutations are added they may destroy the virus completely. But given enough opportunity… new functions may emerge. When we see the same changes emerging many times, independently, that suggests the emergence of newer and possibly more virulent viruses. This is what we are seeing in the UK with variant B.1.1.7, the South African B.1.351, and elsewhere.”

To Roos, the current data shows that the response to, and efficacy of, all the available vaccines is excellent. Whether one will have to be vaccinated every year, as with the influenza vaccine, Roos guesses “it will probably persist as a serious human cold virus for which vaccination is advisable.” As to whether a pandemic of this severity and scope could happen again, “there is every reason to think that something like this could happen again, but there is also much that we can do to minimize this risk, and to recognize and control new infections as they emerge.”

This story is by Katelyn Silva. Read more at OMNIA.