National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases Researcher, Elliot Lowe, Talks COVID-19

"It's actually really amazing, and I don't want to say that in an insensitive way, but what's unfolding is going to go down in history books. This is going to be a historic moment. Never before in the history of our planet have we seen such a global effort towards a common goal. It's incredibly interesting," Elliot Lowe.


On Episode 36 of 1st Floor Conversations, we were joined by Elliot Lowe. Elliot holds a degree in molecular biochemistry and bioinformatics with a specification in molecular biology. Currently, he works at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It felt timely to engage in conversation with somebody who spends their time delving into infectious disease.

During this episode we covered everything from science 101 to the implications of media propaganda to our social responsibility in a rapidly evolving digital ecosystem. Let's jump in.

Back to basics: Everything you forgot you knew about viruses and immunity.

First thing first, why is it essential to have a basic understanding of the underlying mechanisms around disease, disease transfer, and immunity?

Admittedly, I'm not a science guy. I'm a words guy, a sales guy, a marketing guy, a business guy. At this point, unless you have something or someone in this world that gets you excited about the sciences, it's easy to detach from the conversation and claim ignorance. This is the basis of fear. If you hear coronavirus news headlines and don't understand what a virus is, it is challenging to come out the other side and feel optimistic or rationalize the situation.

We all have a responsibility to build awareness of what's happening around us. To interact in a way that's appropriate and ultimately helpful.

So, what is a virus?

Lowe explains a virus is an infectious particle comprised of two basic components. First, you have the protein capsule, that's called a capsid. The capsid is essentially a dense, protective shell. Think of it like a husk of a walnut. Secondly, inside the capsid, you have the genomic material, which is going to be either DNA or RNA. The genomic material functions like a blueprint, providing the virus with the code to create more of the virus itself.

A primary distinction Lowe makes is that viruses are not alive; they're not living things. They need to find a host organism, a host cell, and take over that cell's machinery to replicate their genomic material.

He encourages us to think of the virus as a pirate. It's going to find and commandeer a vessel to build a larger fleet.

And so, if a virus is an infected particle, what does a vaccine do?

The basis of understanding vaccines and how they work lies in the functionality of the immune system itself. Your immune system breaks down into two major categories, innate and adaptive.

You have your external innate immune system, the physical barrier from the exterior world to the internal body. These barriers include everything from your skin to mucous membranes and earwax, where the goal is to stop foreign invaders at the source. The external system works incredibly well, most of the time. As Lowe says, you can have a virus in your hand and be protected. The issue arises when you breach the barrier. A breach can be as apparent as a cut or lesion in the skin or as monotonous and unassuming as touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.

Then there is the internal innate response. Patrolling our bodies are tiny macrophages looking for foreign invaders and giving off warning signals that alert other cells, like natural killer cells, monocytes, and white blood cells, of the intruders. It's is not a quick process. Your cells have to find and identify the invader and then react.

Now, the advantages provided by vaccines. When you are vaccinated, you introduce the pathogen, and your body develops an immunity by learning to recognize it and respond more quickly with an adaptive immune response. Vaccines do all this without you getting sick.

Is a vaccine the only way out of our current situation facing COVID-19?

The short answer, we don't know. There are simply too many variables and not enough data at this point in time to make any claims about the coronavirus in particular. We don't know if this is going to be seasonal like the flu or even precisely how infectious it is.

There are two factors at play that have allowed the coronavirus to take flight as a global pandemic. First, Lowe explains that R0 [pronounced, “are-not”] is a mathematical term used to describe how contagious a virus is. Essentially, it is a number that corresponds to, if I am infected, the number of people I am likely to infect. Though we don't have an official value, the exponential nature of its spread across the world indicates an R0 greater than 1. Combine that with a lengthy incubation period, and you have a contagious disease that can be transmitted to multiple people before the host has any idea that they're infected.

So, while scientists pour over the data expending energy and resources in search of treatment, we can focus on three things; prevention, mitigation, and flattening the curve, so our current infrastructure isn't overgrown.

As Lowe said, "There isn't any reason to assume that this is going to blow over quickly."

Lowe makes this doomsday-ish statement with the knowledge of the basic stages of development before a preliminary vaccine becomes a viable solution for the general public with each step ensuring its safety and efficacy. In short, preclinical testing is everything that happens in the lab before clinical trials. Beyond that is a series of experiments that ramp up the test sample size each time. Finally, all the research and 3 phases of clinical trial results make their way to the FDA for review and approval.

The valuable takeaway is less a precise understanding of the nuances and more the setting of expectations for the process as a whole. The call to action: stay informed. It will take time to arrive at a viable solution.

Why is COVID-19 such a media sensation?

Staying informed sounds like it should be more accessible than ever in the age of technology. We walk around with powerful computers in our back pockets, the world-wide-web at our fingertips in a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, access to such immediate information increases the accumulation and spread of misinformation.

Malicious or not, we live in a world where clicks equal dollars, and the more sensational the headline, the more clicks. Simultaneously, our collective attention spans are shrinking, and headline surfing is becoming more dangerous, no matter where you source your news. So if you’ve made it this far in the article, thank you for your attention.

There's a disconnect between scholarly journals written by incredible academics and the 140 characters from which we're used to consuming news. That complex analysis or study is not easily converted into a headline that's now news and exciting clickbait.

These factors working in tandem with an unprecedented experience in human history creates serious entertainment value, which is easily manipulated and often misconstrued.

"Misinformation spreads much like a virus," Lowe explained. "The more radical it is… the more infectious it is. And you can stop it by just choosing to separate yourself from it... not separate yourself from the media, but separate yourself from the sensationalism and make sure that you're being rational... checking things yourself."

There are a lot of places to get news. I could be considered news, Elliott can be considered news, whether you're listening to MSNBC or FOX or Joe Rogan, it's all news. We've become engulfed and engrained in media, and it's all on one playing field. No matter where your news comes from or how you consume it, have integrity, fact check it, and gather the full story.

"We can be active participants. We don't need to be spectators." We have a social responsibility to do so.

Lowe left us with two killer corona pro-tips:

  1. Your phone is a new thing. It was not around for other pandemics. It is a third hand; you need to wash it, a lot.

  2. Cut an onion in half and rub the tips of your fingers on the onion. It's not going to keep you from touching your face, but every time you do it, you're going smell it. It'll help you recognize how often you touch your face. It's pretty eye-opening.

The Wrap Up:

Elliot Lowe encourages listeners to love science and find enjoyment in it. He reminds us that science is all around us. "There's so much beauty in this world that we get to experience. All these building blocks around us that we get to engage with... If you're an artist, you can be a scientist. If you're a writer, you can be a scientist. Take joy in the things around you and use them in order to have a fulfilling and happy life."

You can hear more from Elliot on his podcast, Potions Class, where he makes science, simple and personable. Think about the science teacher you wish you had growing up! He does an incredible job of bringing science to life in a way that It makes it simple and easy to understand. So that it's relevant because unless it's relevant, it's just information.

Guest Giveaway:

Potions Class is a Podcast By Joe Podcast. Joe Ennis, the owner of Podcasts By Joe released his own Podcast 101 Course. Included, there are 7 modules on everything you need to know to create your podcast. Click Here and use the code 1STFLOOR for 50% off.