KNOW THE VAX FACTS: From ‘long flu’ to long Covid: A virologist’s journey there and back again

WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER, my mother got a “flu,” a strain of influenza virus from which she never recovered. She developed a condition called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), which left her unable to work and limited what she could do for the past 37 years.

In 2003, when I was a graduate student in Colorado, a new virus that caused a severe respiratory syndrome arose in China. To identify this new virus scientists at the Centers for Disease Control took samples from patients, inoculated cells in tissue culture and used an electron microscope to show that the virus had a “corona” of spike proteins typical of a coronavirus. My boss, Dr. Kathryn Holmes, was flown to Atlanta to help confirm its identity. While SARS went on to infect over 8,000 people from 29 countries and resulted in at least 774 deaths, it died out in 2004.

Since 2018, as an associate professor in Missouri, I have worked as part of a team to rapidly identify antiviral monoclonal antibodies as part of the government’s response to a potential pandemic. In January 2020, our team began hearing about a new respiratory virus in China. By February it became apparent that this new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19 or Covid, was spreading in the United States as well as worldwide. In March we began to develop small animal models to study the virus. We have since used them to identify monoclonal antibodies that prevent and treat infection with the original SARS-CoV-2, as well as new variants of the virus that have arisen, and examine the ability of current Covid vaccines to protect against these new virus variants.

Many patient studies show that while SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted in the air and infects via the respiratory tract, it is a systemic virus that can infect multiple organs and cause devastating acute disease and long Covid in almost every major system in the body. SARS-CoV-2 also infects the olfactory bulb and mucosa causing the classic loss of smell/taste now associated with Covid. The proximity of this site to olfactory nerve cells provides an alarming potential route into the brain with unknown consequences.

Knowing how damaging Covid can be and based on my mother’s life-altering experience with what is likely ‘long flu,’ I believe Covid vaccination is the best way to protect against the effects of SARS-CoV-2. I received the Pfizer vaccine in December 2020. My teenage son got his vaccine in May 2021, while my youngest son received his “shot” on his 12th birthday this summer. My father got his two “jabs” of the AstraZeneca vaccine this year. Recently, despite her fear of the vaccine making her ME/CFS worse, my mother started her Moderna vaccination and is doing well. In addition, I am now encouraging all my elderly and high-risk relatives to get a booster shot when they are more than 6 months out from their last COVID vaccine.

SARS-CoV-2 has infected over 219 million people and resulted in more than 4.55 million deaths world-wide, and there is still much we don’t know about its long-term effects. As a member of the American Society for Virology, I have been chatting online about COVID through workshops organized by the Powell House in Old Chatham. If you still have questions about Covid vaccines ask them at the online town hall forums offered by the American Society for Virology at https://asv.org/education/ . Or if you or your organization want to learn more about viruses or virologists reach out to chat with a virologist at https://asv.org/2020/07/29/virologychat/

or listen to my podcast called “Let’s Meet the Virologists” at https://lmtv.podbean.com/.

Larissa Thackray, PhD is an associate professor, Division of Infectious Diseases, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She has spoken several times at the Powell House in Chatham.

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