During the largest Ebola virus outbreak on record (2014-2016), I was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and observed as diagnostic assays and vaccines developed by NIH researchers were employed in West Africa to assist in the outbreak response. Subsequently, diligent work continued on multiple fronts, including therapeutic development and molecular biology, to better understand the virus-host interaction. Information gleaned from these studies was used to drive public health policy and education.
We find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. While there are substantial differences between the current pandemic and previous outbreaks, we can apply the lessons from previous epidemics to our current efforts. An essential aspect of any pandemic response is limiting virus transmission as quickly and extensively as possible. The efforts required to achieve this depend on the virus, prior immunity in the population, and the mechanism of transmission. Controlling the novel coronavirus is particularly difficult, as there is substantial spread from asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic persons. Additionally, the absence of preexisting immunity in the population and the ease by which respiratory pathogens transfer between persons has led to the extreme infection control measures seen globally.
As we learn more about SARS-CoV-2, I expect that our efforts will be tailored to mitigate the disease while minimizing their negative impacts. We need to be cautious with regard to how and when we loosen our social distancing policies moving forward. One goal should be to avoid a second wave of infections that make the recent social and economic suffering for naught. I expect that this would require improved diagnostics, maintaining social distancing where able, and extensive virus surveillance to detect any surge in infections. Hopefully, this unique experience has provided everyone with insight into the practical applications of basic scientific research, the multidisciplinary response to global health threats, and the importance of science education as a bulwark against emerging diseases.