Andrew's Angle - February 2020

Andrew Read

Unless something miraculous happens, humanity just gained itself another virus. With luck (and a lot of hard work), a highly effective vaccine will become available, and herd immunity will render the latest coronavirus a thing of the past. But we’ll have to be awfully lucky: humanity has only ever eradicated one human pathogen (smallpox), and vaccine development takes years. Right now, we can only guess at the deaths and societal disruption to come in the next few months.

Throughout human history, infections have spilled from animals into humans, as did this one. When humans lived in small groups, many outbreaks undoubtedly fizzled out. But as human populations grew large enough, spillover pathogens were able to permanently sustain themselves on us (measles). These days, advances in microbiology and public health make it possible to catch some early and eradicate them (SARS). But many get away (HIV, 2019-nCoV). 

Odds are that spillovers will become more common. The human population has doubled in my lifetime, and it will continue to rise for decades. That’s an awful lot more animal-people contact, especially as resources get stressed and environments disrupted. Combined with density-dependent transmission and unprecedented human mobility across the planet... well, we’re in parameter space no species has ever experienced.

It’s hard to judge the threat. We don’t yet know what the COVID-19 fatality rate is, but it looks substantially lower than SARS. We don’t know if the next spillover will be worse or better; right now, we don’t even know enough to predict whether 2019-nCoV itself will evolve to become more or less virulent in the coming years.

Like many challenges facing humanity, science is key to spillover mitigation. Here at Penn State we have one of the largest groupings of co-located infectious disease scientists anywhere, with some of the best facilities. Moreover, our expertise lies across all the scales involved, from angstrom-level structure and chemistry on the surface of virus particles (Center for Structural Biology) to global pandemic preparedness and vaccine implantation strategies (Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics). Hear three of our sharpest minds talk about their work on infectious disease dynamics in this month’s Symbiotic Podcast.

As we confront the challenge of global outbreaks, effective international collaboration is an absolute necessity. With that in mind, I am proud to say that Penn State was the first university in the US to sign on to a global coalition pledging rapid and open access to research data concerning the outbreak.

Whatever happens, we want to stay at the forefront. The life sciences are going to be key for dealing with spillovers, but so too the social sciences, law, policy, economics, communication science, advanced computing and mathematics, and new sensing technologies. Penn State’s leadership is committed to pushing boundaries across each of these fields. 

For our part, Huck will continue to not only build on those strengths but also to facilitate seamless intellectual movement between them. 

We have to. There is going to be a lot more to do.

- Andrew