LAWRENCE, Kan. — For the past eight years, a University of Kansas professor has quietly studied the family of coronaviruses linked to such contagious and sometimes-deadly infections as SARS and MERS.
Those studies may soon include research into the newest member of that coronavirus clan — the dangerous strain officially called SARS-CoV-2 that has triggered a worldwide pandemic and claimed more than 85,000 lives in less than four months.
Although KU Professor Anthony Fehr has investigated coronaviruses since 2012, he’s alarmed by the speed this virus – this COVID-19 contagion — traveled the globe.
“I’m surprised by the ability of this virus to spread,” he said. “If you look at other coronaviruses like MERS and SARS, they started and spread and quickly died away. When this virus started taking off in China, I was shocked.”
He was bit frightened, too.
“What scares me is the case fatality rate of this virus,” Fehr said. “When you look at those case fatality rates, you see it’s upwards of 5% worldwide and it’s 3% in the United States. Those are higher numbers compared to other viruses.”
“I’d venture to say we’re talking about more than one to two million deaths. Again, those are conservative numbers. And that’s if we did nothing.”
The assistant professor of infectious disease is also concerned about the number of people hospitalized because of COVID-19.
“The total number of cases that end up in the hospital is like 10%,” Fehr said. “If hospitals are full (of COVID-19 patients) what will happened to people with other illnesses who can’t get into those hospitals? The effect goes beyond the people impacted by this disease.”
“We Were Not Ready For This”
But could the United States have done anything differently to reduce the number of people impacted by the virus, or slow its unprecedented spread?
“The roll-out of tests was a major failure,” Fehr said. “If you go back in time, we should have had hundreds of thousands of tests available by mid-February to distribute in airports and cities. Those tests are not hard to develop. If we were set up properly, we should have been able to test everyone coming from overseas.
“Clearly, that didn’t happen. And that gave us a false sense that the number of cases of COVID-19 was much lower. It’s clear we were not ready for this.”
And Fehr isn’t sure why. Scientists have had coronaviruses on their radars for years.
“I, and many of my colleagues in the field, have known that SARS-like CoVs exist in bats that have the ability to infect human cells for several years now,” Fehr said. “We, as a group of coronavirologists, have been predicting that additional outbreaks are likely to occur. We’ve had three coronaviruses (epidemics) in humans in the past 18 years.”
He added: “This has exposed our pandemic response is not adequate.”
“Amazing” Response By Scientific and Medical Communities
In spite of those shortcomings, Fehr applauds the rapid response by the scientific and medical communities to attack this virus.
“We are actively mobilizing and testing new therapies,” he said. “We have several vaccines in clinical trials. This is being done at a record-breaking pace. You don’t see that done this quickly ever. It’s amazing.”
Fehr hopes his research — inspired by his mentor Dr. Stanly Perlman at the University of Iowa — will uncover new insights about coronaviruses and possible treatments.
“I did a lot of work on SARS, MERS, and other coronaviruses in Dr. Perlman’s lab,” he said. “And we’re continuing the interesting work we uncovered.
“We are working diligently on many projects that should provide a better understanding of how CoVs counter our immune response and provide new avenues for possible treatments.”
Fehr plans to start research on the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus when construction of his new laboratory at KU is finished.
“It was supposed to be built starting in March and that’s obviously been delayed,” he said. “But we’re still working and trying to do what we can. We’re still going forward with research that is highly relevant in today’s world.”
Will Life Ever Return To Normal?
Asked how long the SARS-CoV-2 virus will remain a pandemic threat, Fehr said: “I think we’ll continue to deal with COVID-19 for a few years. We’re still dealing with MERS in the Middle East.”
Health officials reported the first case of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“These viruses don’t mutate like the flu,” Fehr said. “You could imagine a scenario where we deal with (this) for several years because of how it spreads. Maybe if we get a COVID-19 vaccine that will change. There are a lot of unknowns here.”
Will life ever return to normal?
“People ask me that a lot,” Fehr said. “I’m not Nostradamus and I don’t know how to predict that. But I think it’s going to come in waves.”
The first wave, he said, is letting people go back to restaurants.
“Then we might allow for smaller gatherings by summer or early fall,” he said. “On the radio, I heard someone ask if we’ll have football games this fall. That’s a valid question. Are we going to be at a point where we can allow stadiums full of people?”
“It’s also possible that this virus will be diminished in May and June and life goes back to normal in July.”
Advice for Weathering The COVID-19 Pandemic
Until this world health crisis is over, Fehr encourages everyone to follow the CDC’s rules on hand washing and social distancing. Be kind to yourself, and applaud the good in each other.
“The nurses and health care workers are heroes,” Fehr said. “When this is over there should be a parade to honor the people who are treating these patients.”
He added: “This is something unprecedented in most of our lifetimes. We’re not sure how this will play out. But don’t get angry with people. And make sure you’re mentally taking care of yourself. Staying mentally healthy is important.”
Dangers of “Wet Markets” in China
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said many of the earliest patients at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak had visited a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China.
Although scientists have not confirmed how or when SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans, there are theories it started in bats, which then spread it to another animal – perhaps a pangolin – that then infected people at that Wuhan market.
Just days ago, the country’s leading expert on infectious diseases called for an end to China’s “wet markets.”
Fehr supports that action.
“I think that would be a fine idea,” he told FOX4. “And I don’t think you’ll have a lot of people in China who disagree with that. Those markets are not that common in China.
“It’s not clear this outbreak originated at that wet market,” he added. “There’s some evidence that (the virus) entered the human population earlier. But clearly, that market is connected to a lot of cases.”