COVID-19

A SCIENTIST'S APPROACH TO

In a world that seems eerily turned upside-down, I find myself alone in my thoughts most days.

Surely I will wake tomorrow to the welcome news that the United States has finally taken the difficult yet necessary steps to slow the spread of a global viral pandemic currently working its way through all our communities…largely unseen!!

Every day I see news outlets interviewing politicians, intelligence officials from multiple administrations, international business executives, first responders, doctors, nurses, and distraught family members of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) positive individuals.

Of most concern to me is they are all shouting the same truth: we as a nation are on the verge of the collapse of our healthcare system in the short-term, and possibly our national economy long-term, unless we commit completely to this reality: We MUST embrace some key societal changes and implement broad-based virus testing for a sustained period of time (at least 6-8 weeks) to give communities across our nation a much better chance to dramatically slow down COVID-19 rates of infection while medical therapies and a vaccine are developed. How we got to this point is a conversation for another time for me. Looming large, however, is a fairly predictable, bleak future unless we make some substantive changes now.

Here is the problem: a new virus introduced itself into the human population back in December 2019. Our first indication of this was from a doctor in Wuhan, China who began reporting through his medical social media community stories of high numbers of unexplained cases of citizens showing up to hospital with severe pneumonia carrying an alarming death rate ten times that of seasonal flu. What made matters worse: it appeared to be two to three times easier to catch than normal flu! Finally came the nail in the coffin: the symptoms were almost the same as flu starting out, and you could likely spread the virus around for up to a week before you realized you were ill. Oh, did I mention this? There is no vaccine to protect individuals from becoming infected in the first place, antibiotics are of no use since the illness is caused by a virus not a bacterium, AND we have no therapies to help the body fight the infection or the ensuing viral pneumonia (which seems to occur in about 1-2% of those who become infected). Its name you ask? The official name is SARS-nCOV-2, better known as COVID-19.

The good news is we already know how to defeat this enemy. The bad news is, we are running out of time. There are a few “unknown events” that, should they occur, would alter the need for these steps. But as you will see, none of these can be predicted to occur with a high degree of certainty and within a reasonable (1-3 month) time frame.

A. A very good set of therapies and therapeutic drugs become available within the next 1-3 months.

If this were to happen, then even if people became infected, we could save the vast majority of people from death at a reasonable cost. Since we have no ability to predict this outcome with any meaningful degree of certainty, we must plan using the worst case scenario: no therapeutics become available within 1-3 months. If drug therapies and treatments are discovered, then great. We will have averted much pain and suffering either way.

B. The virus changes in some unforeseen ways. SARS-nCOV-2 is in the Coronaviridae family of RNA viruses.

Compared to DNA viruses, coronaviruses tend to mutate more rapidly over replication cycles. It is possible that over multiple infectious cycles the virus could acquire mutations that would render it less and less infectious. Again, there is no way for us to predict this outcome, so for planning purposes we must ignore this possibility.

C. The virus may be sensitive to

temperature changes.

Under this scenario, warmer climates may be predicted to render COVID-19 less infectious. Since we are currently seeing high rates of infection in South America (much warmer climate than the U.S.), this virus does not appear to be affected by warmer climates. So, we cannot hold out hope that the late spring-summer months will cause this virus to become less infectious or less fatal.

Unfortunately, as a nation, we will certainly see more deaths. But, each state now has the information necessary in order to chart its own course. Mississippi is still early on its infection curve. If we strategically implement these key steps now, we can significantly reduce the slope of the curve for our state. The result? Fewer Mississippian lives lost to this awful pandemic. All of our state and local officials bear a heavy burden of decision-making this week. To each of you: I pray you seek wise counsel and I extend an open offer to assist you in moving our great state forward with the difficult yet necessary work that lies ahead.

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”--- Franklin D. Roosevelt

Cedric O. Buckley, Ph.D.

Cedric O. Buckley received his doctoral degree in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics in 2000 from Michigan State University. He is a trained virologist who studied viral replication extensively under his graduate advisor, Dr. Michele M. Fluck (University Distinguished Fellow, now deceased). He continued his postdoctoral research under Dr. Julius H. Jackson (Professor Emeritus, Assoc. Dean Emeritus) studying computational microbial genomics. As a tenured Associate Professor of Biology at Jackson State University, Dr. Buckley furthered his training through collaborations with Dr. Jeffrey Conner, Evolutionary Genomics, Kellogg Biological Station-Michigan State University and Dr. Bruce Birren, Director of the Genomic Center for Infectious Diseases-The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

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