Joseph Giambrone is a professor emeritus in Auburn University’s Department of Poultry Science with a joint appointment in the Department of Pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine. In the following interview he offers his thoughts about how coronaviruses will never be totally eradicated and how pandemics normally occur in waves of infection. He comments on the stability of the SARS CoV-2 virus, explains how best to mitigate transmissions and says constant surveillance of wild animals and those sold in live animal markets is a necessity.
Giambrone is an expert in such matters, having led efforts to improve detection and surveillance of viral diseases and developed new and effective vaccines and vaccine strategies to protect commercially reared chickens. During his graduate research career at the University of Delaware, he was part of a research group that developed the first vaccine against an antigenic variant of an avian coronavirus.
Q: What is the most important thing that the public should understand about this virus that has caused a global pandemic?
Giambrone: Coronaviruses, like influenza and other viruses, naturally occur in wild animals and can spill over into humans (zoonotic infections) and will never be totally eradicated. Therefore, constant surveillance of wild animals in the wild and those later sold in live animal markets must be continually monitored for microorganisms, which can cause disease in both animals and humans. In addition, after any pandemic there needs to be widespread monitoring of animals and humans using rapid sensitive testing for a viral antibody to determine the true extent of infections which occurred in a specific population.
Q: How stable is this virus?
Giambrone: The coronavirus’ lifespan on surfaces depends on various factors like temperature and humidity. The coronavirus can last between three hours and three days on surfaces, depending on the material. A new study tested the virus’ lifespan in a 71-degree-Fahrenheit room at 65 percent relative humidity. After three hours, the virus had disappeared from printing and tissue paper. It took two days for it to leave wood and cloth fabric. After four days, it was no longer detectable on glass or paper money. It lasted the longest, seven days, on stainless steel and plastic. At this time, there is no evidence that the incidence of coronavirus infections will be reduced during high ambient temperature during warmer months, as is common in influenza viruses.
Q: You note that coronaviruses will never be totally eradicated and that there is no evidence that warmer months will cause a reduction in COVID-19 cases. Do you have a sense for when COVID-19 cases might start to subside and, on the flip side, when another rise in cases might return?
Giambrone: Pandemics normally occur in waves of infection. No one at this point in time can predict exactly how many waves or the duration of waves which will occur with this current pandemic. Current models are based on the Spanish flu of 1918. Predictions are that this virus will produce three waves, which can vary from four to six months in duration. However, the exact prediction varies depending on when the disease started in a country and what mitigations were in place in that country, and how many people have been infected and are now immune to the virus. The best-guess estimate for the U.S. will be the first wave will end in early summer, the second will start in midfall and end at the start of winter, and the third will start in midwinter. However, if we use the information that we have gained from the first wave, the incidence, severity and duration of each sequential wave will be reduced.
The end of this current pandemic relies on several things. The first will be the development of free, rapid, sensitive tests available at pharmacies, which can determine antibodies against the virus. Antibodies against this virus will determine the true extent of infection in a population. The second will be the development of free “repurposed” drugs, which are currently used to treat other infections, or new specific antiviral drugs, which directly stop the replication of the virus, as are currently used for treating influenza. However, it is important to note that these drugs are only efficacious if they are administered early in the infections. It is not likely that a drug will be effective for those currently in the advanced state of the disease in an ICU and on ventilators. The third and most important will be the development and large-scale free administration of a new vaccine. As it is currently used for vaccination against influenza, there will need to be some monetary incentive to get people into a pharmacy to receive a vaccine, and people will often wait until they are extremely ill before they will seek treatment from a doctor.
Some good news so far is that there is no molecular evidence that the virus is changing antigenically as does influenza, which would necessitate the development of a new vaccine every year, but no doubt boosters will need to be given every year. However, since this is an RNA virus, continual vaccination could cause mutations within the spike protein, producing serotypes, which would not be protected against by the existing vaccine. These new serotypes would have to be added to new vaccines as is done yearly with the influenza vaccine. Currently, human influenza vaccines have four different antigenic strains, and coronavirus vaccines in poultry require two to four serotypes. Regardless of the production of an effective vaccine, the most important hurdle will be to actually get people to be vaccinated. For various reasons, only 50 percent of the people in the U.S. receive the influenza vaccine. My guess is that governments will eventually place some sort of mandatory vaccination in place.
Q: You mention that wild animals and those sold in live animal markets should be monitored. Do you have a recommendation for how this might best be undertaken? Should an organization like WHO enact global requirements for such checks to better protect the human population?
Giambrone: The WHO’s purview is for the prevention and control of highly infectious diseases in humans. In most developed countries the federal governments have a Department of Agriculture whose job it is for the prevention of diseases of wild and domesticated animals and plants, especially those that may eventually enter into the human food chain. In the U.S., it is referred to as the USDA. In highly developed countries like the U.S. there is a system of supply chain management, where the source of these individual plants and animals which are scheduled for human consumption are monitored for food safety before they are released for human consumption. Recently, most large food companies and restaurant chains in the U.S. and other modern countries have developed food safety labs to test for human pathogens, which can cause disease in humans. We have a Food Systems Institute at Auburn, and many of our graduates are employed in these companies and governmental laboratories. In the U.S., we have live animal markets in which no animals can enter into the system until they have records which show where they were reared and that they have been tested for certain common human pathogens. We refer to that system as “Farm to Fork.” In addition, live caught animals are not permitted to be sold in these markets.
That being said, there are animal and plant pathogens which on occasion can cause small disease outbreaks in humans. There is a recently developed term, “One Health,” which describes the interface between plant, animal and human diseases. A specific term for the spread of animal disease from animals to humans is a zoonotic disease. This is commonly referred to as a “spillover effect.” Spillover of diseases to humans have been recorded in humans for thousands of years. The initial site or infected person, plant or animal of a disease is called the index site. When a disease spreads a certain distance from this site, it is termed as an epidemic. When the diseases spread between countries, it is referred to as a pandemic. At this point, the WHO normally takes over the spread in a human population. However, this still can remain a joint effort between the WHO, countries, states and local agencies. In addition, departments of agriculture will continue to play a role on surveillance of these diseases in plants and animals.
Q: What is the best way to mitigate the transmission of this virus?
Giambrone: The virus is spread mainly from person to person between people who are in close contact with one another through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. These droplets can land in the mouths, noses or eyes of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. The recommended distance between individuals is 6 feet. However, if you are outside in windy conditions or inside where there is increased air movement caused by fans or air-conditioners, you may need to extend this distance. Follow social distancing as outlined by your state and local government and keep up with any changes that they may require. Gatherings of more than 10 people should be avoided at all costs.
Wash your hands often with soap, preferably disinfectant soap, and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Carrying a hand sanitizer in a small plastic container with you at all times is prudent, since you may be outside for an extended period of time. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
Everyone should wear a cloth face cover, eyeware and hair covering when they have to go out in public, for example to the grocery store or to pick up other necessities. Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance. The cloth face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected. Do not use a medical face mask meant for a health care worker. They are in short supply, and health care workers have an infinitely greater chance of contact with a COVID-19-positive person than a person out in public.
If you are in a private setting and do not have on your cloth face covering, remember to always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow. Throw used tissues in the trash. Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, clean your hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks. If surfaces are dirty, clean them: Use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.