Updated on: June 8, 2020

Microbiologist Sees Hope in COVID-19 Genomic Sequence

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Original story posted on: June 5, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Julia Brodt is the wife of John K. Hall, MD, a member of the RACmonitor Editorial Board and guest panelist on Monitor Mondays.

I am a scientist, teacher, wife, daughter, mother, friend, and an American. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio – home to Cincinnati Reds baseball, large companies like Procter & Gamble (dubbed Procter and God by the natives), the Kroger Co., delicious Skyline Chili, and Albert Sabin. Dr. Sabin and his team developed an oral vaccine for polio at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1960. Polio was a terrifying disease in its day, thought to be transmitted in pool water to unsuspecting victims, potentially causing paralysis or death – much like our morbid death watch for COVID-19.

You see, I know about disease. It thrills and fascinates me to study all aspects of the unknown. I have spent years tucked away in windowless, friendless laboratories, doing research that produced expected results less than 10 percent of the time. Sometimes, it required revision of one’s hypothesis, because data does not lie. When an experiment works, it provides a “high” like no other. On a regular basis, I passed the display about Dr. Sabin and felt admiration for his tenacity in difficult times. I, and countless others, have benefitted from his contribution to the polio vaccine.

I have used my knowledge to teach students about the human body and infectious disease. We proclaimed victory with the discovery of penicillin and the advent of other antibiotics, but microbes continue to mutate and outsmart us. In teaching epidemiology, I explained how flu viruses cross-infect species and change, mainly in China, where animals live in close proximity with people. As we can quickly travel great distances, those microbes may be carried in people, or on manufactured products and foods. We have evaded the Ebola virus in great part because it can rapidly kill its host. COVID-19 is more insidious in action.

My anxious curiosity was somewhat satisfied with publication of COVID-19’s genomic sequence, which helped answer in part questions like “How dissimilar is it to other coronaviruses? What makes this bug so infectious?” Clues lie in COVID-19’s genetic code. My questions continued, thusly addressed in online conversations with members of a scientific honor society and colleagues. The computer has become my classroom as I teach online from home, with no face-to-face contact with college students for the foreseeable future.

Our lives have changed. We quarantine at home. My daughter finished her school year by teaching elementary students online. My other daughter, an ICU nurse, was exposed to COVID-19 early in the pandemic, then fought to get tested (which thankfully turned out negative), and my son finished his college degree with no graduation ceremony; rather, a family Zoom session sufficed.

During this outbreak, my husband has worked on the front lines within a hospital system. He goes to his job, then returns home to change clothes and wash up for dinner. In all our medical advancements, hand-washing with soap and water still provides our best defense against infectious disease. He buys produce during “senior hours,” I cook at home, and we purchase other goods through Amazon, which safely delivers to our door. I wash our clothes, sheets, and towels more often, and the five-second rule for foods dropped on the floor no longer applies. My husband hands me vitamin B and D pills to take daily. I swim in our backyard pool with chlorinated water that should quickly counteract a virus. I no longer sing in choir; members visit by computer during our practice time, and we catch up virtually. Our community band concert was canceled in March, and we cannot practice as a group. No emails have been sent with plans because we practice inside a school, in a room where we must sit shoulder to shoulder.

At the onset of the epidemic, I found Internet directions for making masks, and shipped them out to the family, as they can decrease the spread of droplets that carry virus particles. I later ordered masks for my parents, when it became apparent we were in this for the long haul. People of all varieties have been affected, but some groups are at greater risk for infection: those deemed immunocompromised, for example, such as the elderly or folks with underlying health conditions. I believe that “no virus is a good virus,” unless you count the ones that have been attenuated for use in vaccines or successfully used as vectors for transfer of genetic information in labs.

I hesitate to use the word, “unprecedented” for our COVID-19 situation, because humanity has previously traveled this road many times. People have perished and survived waves of the plague, smallpox, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, polio, AIDS, and more recently, SARS and MERS. What is new to our generational experience is that we do not have the magic medicine to make it all end right now. We want what we want when we want it! I understand that we do not wish to see our family members, or any living person, suffer and die. I wish China had given the world a heads-up that this virus was coming. But be patient, remain diligent with hand-washing, stay socially distanced, wear a mask, eat nutritious food, get necessary hours of sleep, exercise, meditate, and be kind to one another.

Today we have far greater knowledge than the days when Dr. Sabin conducted his testing. I have no doubt that scientific minds will prevail this time around, and hopefully the next….                                                     

Julia K. Brodt, PhD

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