BOSTON – Dr. Catherine Kreatsoulas, a prominent researcher at Harvard University in the fields of Clinical Epidemiology, Cardiology, Biostatistics, and the Social and Behavioral Sciences, spoke to The National Herald about the coronavirus pandemic.
In a very simple and yet comprehensive way understandable by all Dr. Kreatsoulas provided information and answers to ordinary questions.
The entire interview follows:
The National Herald: What are your thoughts about the coronavirus pandemic?
Dr. Catherine Kreatsoulas: The coronavirus has been classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) which in the most general sense means that the virus can cause illness or death, it can be transmitted from person-to-person, and that it has spread throughout the world.
Epidemiologists and other experts who are studying the disease are very concerned because of how easily the disease is transferred from person-to-person. This virus has high “community spread”, or in other words, people can become infected with the virus because they were in an area where they were exposed without knowing how, where, or when they became infected. This high transmission rate is very concerning as it can affect a large proportion of the population and our health care systems are not structured to deal with unusually high influxes of infectious disease.
TNH: What trigged the coronavirus?
CK: Even before this outbreak, coronaviruses were known to exist in both humans and animals. Not surprisingly, there are many theories suggesting that this strain came from bats or pangolins (two animals known to carry corona viruses) that were transmitted through wet markets in Wuhan, China, in addition to countless conspiracy theories. However, these are only hypotheses and in truth, at this time we do not know what triggered this virus and we may never know. Right now, we are in the middle of an international health crisis and it is important to remain focused on disease containment, testing, management, prevention and treatment strategies.
TNH: How different is it from other coronaviruses?
CK: Coronaviruses are a type of virus that typically make up approximately one fifth of the viruses that circulate in any given flu season. You will often hear this current virus referred to by different names: “novel corona virus”, “COVID-19”, which refers to corona virus disease 2019, but the most accurate name is Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) CoV-2. SARS CoV-2 is genetically very similar to other deadly forms of coronaviruses, such as SARS CoV from 2002-3 and the MERS outbreak in 2012. What is of great concern about this SARS CoV-2 is how easily in spread within the community. Interrupting the human-to-human transmission of SARS CoV-2 is a great challenge and as a result we see it far more widespread throughout the world than previous corona viruses.
TNH: How is spread?
CK: The main mode of transmission or spread is thought to be through respiratory droplets. This can spread if people are in close contact with each other or if a person coughs or sneezes and the respiratory droplets land near a person’s mouth or nose. It is thought that people are most contagious when they are showing symptoms, although it is possible for someone to spread the virus without showing symptoms. It is also important to mention that the virus can survive on surfaces and although less common, it can be spread through infected surfaces as well.
TNH: How can someone protect his or her self?
CK: The best way to protect yourself is to avoid coming into contact with the virus. Since this virus is spread primarily from person-to-person, it is important to avoid all close contact with people (at least 6 feet or 1.83 meters apart) as some people may have the virus without showing symptoms. It is essential to wash your hand often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is also effective. Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth. While this sounds like simple advice, without realizing it we actually touch our face more frequently than most of us realize. Some advice I share with my friends and family every winter is to wear gloves in public places, mostly because when wearing gloves, we are less likely to touch our face.
TNH: Are the measures governments have taken enough or are more needed?
CK: Government response is highly variable from country to country and often we see a slow scaling up in the severity of measures. Some measures governments have taken include declaring a state of emergency, which then allows them the power to trigger other emergency measures and access to relief funding, focus on disease testing, surveillance, household quarantines, decontamination of public spaces, calling on retired nurses and physicians, social distancing, economic relief strategies, travel bans, and closure of mass gatherings including schools, churches, social venues, and even non-essential businesses.
TNH: What do you foresee it is going to happen from now on?
CK: As difficult as it may be, I believe that the best strategy is to implement stringent societal measures such as quarantines as early as possible because there is a lag between community spread and the time the individuals require healthcare. During this lag period the disease is spreading exponentially. If patients appear at the hospital all at once, the hospitals and healthcare workers will be overwhelmed and will not be able to provide optimal care. This is what happened in Italy. It is also important to not ease the measures too quickly as we are now seeing a second wave emerge in Hong Kong.
TNH: How close are we for a vaccine or drug?
CK: While everyone, from patients, physicians, and our leaders are desperate for a drug or vaccine to become available, the development of this takes time. There are important processes in place to test and ensure the safety of drugs and vaccines before they become widely available.
TNH: What attracted you to epidemiology?
CK: I find epidemiology fascinating! In epidemiology we use many tools, including statistical methods to determine patterns of disease and behavior. I come from a background in forensic sciences and in many ways, I think of epidemiology as detective work of diseases!
Dr. Kreatsoulas completed a Bachelor of Science in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Toronto in Canada, and went on to achieve a Master’s and Doctorate degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, in Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in social epidemiology as a Fulbright Scholar. In addition to pursing her international research, she currently teaches in the Master of Health Care Management program at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.