Coronavirus Outbreak Has Not Yet Peaked Says Virologist Polly Roy

Polly Roy

Amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the one voice that we should all be listening to is that of virologists from the world over. Having studied viruses closely and for years, virologists possibly have answers to a lot of questions that we may have on our minds right now, related or unrelated to COVID-19. What exactly is a virus? When will we have a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2? How crucial is aggressive testing to containing the pandemic?

To shed light on these and many more questions that a lot us have, SheThePeople.TV reached out to Polly Roy, Professor of Virology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the Department of Pathogen Molecular Biology within the Infectious and Tropical Diseases Faculty. Roy received her PhD in Molecular Virology from New York University/Columbia University Medical School. She has studied RNA virology as a three-year postdoc at the Waksman Institute, Rutgers University. She established her laboratory and became a full Professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham USA. She came to the University of Oxford, UK, through a senior International Fogarty fellowship, where she gradually developed a second virology lab whilst maintaining her research lab at UAB until 2005. She moved as Virology Professor to the School in 2001, where she leads a large group of researchers.

Professor Roy speaks to us on how she came to pursue virology, the changes she has seen in the field of STEM over the decades, and how unpredictable coronaviruses are.

No one can predict such outbreaks before any virus emerges. It’s such a complex dynamic, viruses, hosts, movement, opportunity that although surveillance occurs, it is essentially luck if an emerging pathogen is spotted before it causes disease.

Tell us about your journey. What was childhood like in Kolkata?

My childhood in Kolkata was a very happy one, as I grew up not only with my eight sisters and a brother but also many cousins and neighbours, a very large family. I went to a small private school, with my sisters, where all students knew each other. We were also close to our teachers. Kolkata was, and still is, very much influenced by Tagore’s music, poetry and dance dramas. We all were very much involved in many cultural functions in the neighbourhood. I always participated in the school’s annual events and celebrations, taking part in dance dramas. I was a popular dancer and performed in many shows, private and public. However, like all Bengali kids, we were all very serious about education. Education was the top priority from the start, in our family.

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How did you end up pursuing the discipline of virology?

I had a scholarship to study at the renowned Presidency College in Kolkata, where many professors had attended higher education in the West, particularly in the USA. So I was quite aware of academic opportunities in the US. I was also a very keen reader of literature, both in Bengali and English. My horizon was quite wide from very early on and there was no doubt at all that I wanted an academic career. I knew that I had to go to the USA if I wanted to pursue my academic dreams. Frankly, it never occurred to me that I was a girl and was not allowed a career. In Kolkata, there was not any discrimination between boys and girls of middle-class families, both were equally treated as far as education was concerned, probably different than some parts of India at that time. So I applied for fellowships in various American universities after my master’s degree in Science. I had a few offers from various US universities but I decided to go to NYU at NYC, which I never regretted. There I came across some top most molecular virologists and I did my PhD research under David Bishop and Sol Spiegleman in Columbia Medical School, a group that was well known for their virus research. So virology found me really, I did not chase it.

Growing up, who were the women researchers that you looked up to?

I met very few women researchers before or when I was a PhD student. Even during my postdoctoral studies in virology in the 70s, the community of female scientists was not extensive. But there were some of course, and one I admired was Alice Huang, a virologist, at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, wife of Nobel laureate David Baltimore, another was Ellie Ehrenfeld, at the Albert Einstein Institute in New York. Both were amazing to me at that time.

STEM has been a challenging field for women to leave their mark in. How has the scenario changed over the decades? Is it less male-dominated space than it used to be, say two or three decades ago?

It was challenging for most women in those days, particularly for married women with children. However, I strongly believe anyone can still do well if they are highly motivated and passionate about their work. You can always find a way if it is important to you. I got married and had a child during my early career and it was not easy to balance everything but I was always very hard working and very determined. I do not give up on anything easily and I guess that helped me eventually. Happily, the field is less male-dominated now than three decades ago.

I met very few women researchers before or when I was a PhD student. Even during my postdoctoral studies in virology in the 70s, the community of female scientists was not extensive.

Could you help our readers understand what exactly a virus is and how does it make us sick?

A virus is essentially made up of two chemical components, nucleic acid (the genome, either as DNA or RNA) and a protective protein coat. Some viruses also have a second coat of lipid which helps them to enter into the cells of humans and animals. Viruses are parasites as they have to depend on the host cell processes to multiply, they are too genetically simple to do it all on their own. In a way, they take all the ‘goodies’ from the cells to survive and slowly take over the cell. As a result, the host cell cannot function properly and pathology occurs.

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You have studied RNA virology as a 3-year postdoc. What was your first reaction when you became aware of a novel coronavirus outbreak? Did you see it expanding into a pandemic of this scale initially?

Yes, I have been studying RNA viruses for three decades now as these viruses evolve more rapidly than the DNA viruses. It is a fascinating fact that all RNA viruses in a population are different, they are always full of the potential to evolve. My first reaction to the novel coronavirus (now SARS-CoV-2), was that it would go the way of the previous SARS coronavirus and probably disappear quickly. But we did not know at that time that this variant is far more contagious and is transmitted easily between humans directly, without any intermediate animal or insect. So, I missed it, I did not see that it could expand to this scale.

How unpredictable are coronaviruses? We have had SARS and MERS outbreaks in the past, and now SARS-CoV-2. Is it possible for researchers to predict such outbreaks of such deadly viruses? If yes, what are the tools that they need to be provided with?

No one can predict such outbreaks before any virus emerges. It’s such a complex dynamic, viruses, hosts, movement, opportunity that although surveillance occurs, it is essentially luck if an emerging pathogen is spotted before it causes disease. A better way forward is to have the systems and legislation ready to be able to roll out diagnostics and a vaccine as soon as possible. If a SARS vaccine has been available, it might have been available to “ring fence” and contain the SARS-CoV-2 infection. We cannot prevent these outbreaks, although thankfully they are rare, but we should be faster in our response to them. Good detection methods, vaccines and drugs are all possible but need more rapid development.

What are the major reasons that lead to the spillover of viruses from animals into humans?

It is always a possibility but is aided by bad practices that bring humans and animals into close contact without due sanitation. As I said earlier, the pool of virus particles always contains mutant viruses that could be equipped for human infection if they get the chance. So the key thing is to not give them that chance.

Is aggressive coronavirus testing a way to flatten the curve?

It is certainly one of the ways. Testing gives the assurance that an individual is either not infected or has been infected and recovered. In the former case, the advice is to take care and test again regularly if possible. In the latter case, an individual is safe to return to work and contribute to the maintenance of society. If someone scores positive they can self isolate to prevent spreading the virus and also monitor their condition to seek the earliest support if it is required. It’s important to stress that although this disease is serious, most people will make a fulsome recovery quickly and those that suffer a more serious event will be better the earlier they are treated.

Also Read: What Does ‘Recovered From Coronavirus’ Mean? 4 Questions Answered

How soon will we have a vaccine for COVID-19 according to you?

I believe another year to a year and a half and we will have vaccines, probably more than one.

Has COVID-19 pandemic peaked globally? Or are we in for more damage with much more ferocity?

In some countries, the pandemic has peaked already and in others, it has not, it depends when the virus first emerged in the country and what strategy that country has taken to control the pandemic. Globally it has not yet peaked.

Some reports have suggested that the outbreak will return around October and that it will take multiple rounds of social distancing to contain it. What is your opinion?

I am not so convinced about this, it depends on how the current pandemic is controlled. If cases can be brought down to manageable numbers and widespread testing is adopted it could be controlled by track and trace type interventions.

How do you think will COVID-19 pandemic change the global approach towards research in the field of virology?

It will definitely remind the global community that research in Virology is needed as, in many countries, virus research is not taken seriously enough. We have had a golden age when virus infections have been controlled by vaccination and sanitation. But this pandemic is a real lesson to all, including funders, politicians and the public – the threat is always there, it never really went away, and it needs continual attention for our ongoing health security.

How will the field of virology itself evolve when this crisis is over? Will there be a change in focus? Will more efforts come into effect to cultivate the ability to predict future outbreaks?

Yes, this will definitely change the focus. Many virologists who are studying other viruses currently and many non-virologists will now consider expanding their work to coronaviruses. SARS, MERS and now SARS-CoV-2 are enough; we need to get ahead of the next one.

India got its first indigenous testing kit for coronavirus due to Minal Dakhave Bhosale, an Indian virologist based in Pune and her team. Do you think the coverage her success has received is a sign of changing times in the field of STEM and how history is being recorded now? Will women finally get due recognition in this field?

I have not lived in India for the last 40 years. But, I wish Dr Bhosale well. As noted a test is a fundamental part of the response so she has performed a great service. I have not come across much discrimination in scientific achievement, at least not in my experience in the West. Perhaps, because it is based on demonstrable facts, and anyone can find them if they see the right experiment to do. Much has been changed regarding women in the scientific field in the last 15-20 years and I am sure that is also true in India, as Dr Bhosale has epitomised.

Also Read: Who is Minal Dakhave Bhonsle? Woman behind India’s first COVID test

What would you like to tell young girls who want to pursue a career in research in the future?

My advice to them would be not to hesitate but always pursue their dreams. But it’s no easy ride, they will have to be highly motivated and passionate about it. A scientific career is not just a job, it has to become a part of one’s life.