With lives in El Paso, across this country and around the world up in the air because of the coronavirus pandemic and all the talk, finding a real expert seems like a good idea.
UTEP associate professor Germán Rosas Acosta, a virologist, is one.
Now 51, he came to the U.S. at 23 with a degree in microbiology and headed for graduate school at New York University to work on a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in biomedical science – with research in mind.
He joined UTEP in 2007 where he’s teaching and involved in viral research with special attention to influenza viruses and the development of “novel broad-spectrum antiviral therapies.”
He’s been keeping up with the global bad boy these days, COVID-19, as the disease has made its way person to person, starting in December, from Wuhan in China to Hong Kong, Europe, the United States and just about every other country in the world.
El Paso Inc. initially interviewed Rosas about two weeks ago when UTEP classes were going as usual and then again last week because events have moved so quickly. All classes will be conducted remotely online when spring break ends March 30.
Acosta explained what COVID-19 does to the body and offered assurances for skeptics that the U.S. and other countries have not gone overboard in responding to the threat the virus poses.
Q: Is there anything new that’s come up in the last few days that has surprised you?
Yes, there was a recent study that indicates that the virus can survive in suspension in the air for long periods of time. That was a little unexpected. It’s like three hours. I don’t really know the details of the study, but I think that just brings up another unknown related to the virus.
Q: That means you can get in an elevator and catch the virus from someone who sneezed there two hours earlier?
Yes. That should make us a little more conscious about being exposed out there and about the social distancing thing. You really have to minimize your exposure altogether in areas that are being used by others.
Q: Anything else that you might’ve been thinking was true a week or so ago that’s not true now?
There was one other thing that was really revealing. Now there’s agreement that a lot of the propagation of the virus is taking place due to people who are not showing any symptoms. It’s now widely accepted that that’s the case.
So a lot of people who are fueling the pandemic are not themselves showing symptoms. Most of the virus propagation we’ve seen is probably associated with healthy individuals who are spreading infection without showing symptoms.
Q: That’s all the more concerning and kind of makes everyone a threat.
Yes, it’s a lot more difficult to contain. That’s what it comes down to because when you have people who are starting to show symptoms, it’s easy to isolate them. But when you have a bunch of people who don’t show symptoms, how do you know who is infected and who is not?
It would be required to test pretty much everybody, and we obviously don’t have the capabilities to do that. So containment becomes a lot more difficult.
That emphasizes the whole point about distancing, avoiding crowds, avoiding environments where you have more than 10 people in the same room. All of those directives make sense, particularly considering the fact that we have so many healthy people spreading the virus.
Q: A lot of people still think the whole coronavirus pandemic thing is being overblown by the media and that we’re seeing an over-reaction by the government.
The one thing that we do know is that if nothing is done, it’s very likely that the virus will continue to propagate among the population. And if that were to be the case, then we would for sure see a huge increase in the number of cases of people who will need some sort of medical attention. That’s where it gets scary.
Q: Go on.
If there are only say 10 people that need to be in intensive care at a hospital, then we can deal with that. But the problem is if you don’t have 10 or 100, but 1,000 people or even more that need to be put on a respirator because they have difficulty breathing because their lungs are being compromised by viral infection, then we have a huge problem on our hands, right?
So we need to decrease as much as possible the number of people who will be infected with this virus so we will be able to deal with it.
Q: Are we doing enough?
First of all, there is a fairly well-defined population that is the one that is most at risk. Right? I mean, that has been seen based on what has come out of China. There is a population that is at risk, and that tends to be people 60 and older. The other groups of people are those with other health conditions: people with cardiovascular disease, lung disease and asthma.
Asthma is one condition that will probably make people more susceptible to complications associated with coronavirus – and to some degree being overweight would also increase the odds of people having complications. And, of course, if you’re a smoker, that just makes things more complicated.
But it seems like the virus has the ability to infect pretty much everybody.
Q: Kids seem to dodge the bullet. That’s something everybody is thankful for. But why?
I have read a little bit about it, but to be honest, I haven’t seen anything that indicates what it could be attributed to. I can postulate, take a wild guess, but it would just be that.
There is probably an inflammatory response that requires you to have been exposed to other viruses before, so it complicates the response to this particular virus if you’re young and haven’t been exposed.
Q: What do they know about what this virus actually does inside the body?
Basically, it creates dense areas in the lung. Like regions where you have groups of immune cells that produce areas of inflammation within your lungs, and those areas complicate the function of the lungs. The lungs need to be open and free of liquids. They need to be free of inflammatory cells in order to function well.
Q: You’re saying the immune cells themselves may be the problem?
Well, it’s partially immune cells. But it’s also cells that are dying within your lungs. The virus triggers two things: It kills cells in your lungs, and it also recruits immune cells to fight the infection.
So those areas have high density in the lungs. That’s the way that it looks under X-rays. It looks like areas where, rather than having a clear area, you have a dense area within the lungs. Those areas are where both cells are dying and more cells are coming in to react against the infection. The immune cells are also dying. So it’s a combination of both things.
Q: Can you compare this virus and pandemic with some that may have been more deadly?
The Spanish Flu of 1918 was said to have killed no more than 1% of the people who were infected.
Q: But it killed a lot of people, about 50 million worldwide and 675,00 in the U.S.
It killed a lot of people, but the issue with that one was that many who died of the 1918 virus were people who were at the prime of their life.
So it was mostly the healthy and young who died.
Q: That’s the reverse of what we have now.
Yes, there were two factors there. Apparently, there was activity with some previous influenza viruses. So people who were older than say, 40 or so, apparently had some antibodies that gave them protection against that pandemic virus.
Q: One question I hear people asking is why we’re seeing many cases in the United States, but not as many in Mexico or Latin America.
One reason may be it just hasn’t been spread among the population like it has here. You could also argue that there might be climactic factors involved – the weather – humidity and heat.
Q: Summer recently ended in the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s early fall there and still hot. So could it dissipate here this summer, flare-up there, and then come back when it gets cool here?
That’s one of the big unknowns. Right now, we are taking all of these measures, closing businesses, forcing people to stay away and all of that. But one of the questions that remains is whether we’ll be able to contain it and limit transmission among people in a place like El Paso.
Are we going to see another wave when October and November come around? It’s a possibility. Hopefully, that won’t be the case. What will probably dictate that is how many people get infected and whether that gives people an immunity against the virus.
Q: So the more people who get it now, the more who will be immune later?
Q: We’re looking at the possibility that this might stretch out for months and that people will have to stay at home while businesses close down and no one’s making any money. It’s a calamitous series of things that could happen.
One of the things that we should try to do is look at exactly how things went in China. They’ve been able to contain it. They had a wave that was increasing dramatically. The increases were really mind-blowing early on. But then they imposed some pretty draconian measures that kept people fully away from each other, and they were able to hold down transmission in the population.
Now they keep seeing a dramatic decrease in the new cases. So, to some degree, they were able to contain it. Whatever they see next will probably be very informative and allow us to predict what would happen here next.
Q: Just China?
I think it was in Hong Kong that they were also able to keep it under control, and they are thinking that they may actually need to keep international flights down because they may actually see a new wave if they don’t.
If they see a second wave due to international traffic, that might tell us how these viruses are going to behave in the population. Like, is there enough protection among people to ensure that we won’t have a second wave? And depending on that, we may be able to be better informed in terms of knowing what to expect here.
Q: OK, how long do we go with these measures here?
If we do what we have done so far for three months or four, I think we might be OK. But thinking about maintaining these measures for longer than that might drive everybody crazy.
Q: Spring break is on, but what’s after that? How will you teach as UTEP, like other universities across the country, switches to remote classes?
We have an extra week to get ready to go all online. We will finish the semester fully online, and I think that that’s the smarter way of doing it, so that we can continue with the academics that are required for our students, while keeping social distance.
I think that most of the classes that we teach already have central support from the Blackboard system, which is what we use to communicate with the students outside the classroom.
Q: Blackboard is a program, not a blackboard?
Yeah, that’s the name of the software platform that we use for basically anything that is required for the classes. We put a lot of material in Blackboard to start with.
We put the syllabus there. We make some material for the students available to Blackboard. Some of the quizzes and tests that students take are put in there.
So I think we are well prepared for the transition. I think it’s going to be very smooth, and that is what we are going to be doing to finish the semester.