Informing the Community on Novel Coronavirus

  • five panelist and the moderator
    Information session panelists included, from left to right: Amy Hartman of Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research; Mari Webel, assistant professor of history; Kristen Mertz, epidemiologist at the Allegheny County Health Department; Zhaojin Zeng, visiting assistant professor of history; and Megan Culler Freeman, pediatric infectious diseases senior fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine. Standing is session moderator and Global Studies Center Director Michael Goodhart. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • a young woman sitting behind a laptop holding a mic
    Oakland Catholic High School senior Emily Gong asked a question about the stigmatization of Asian people since the virus broke out. She said she has heard some stories about it first-hand. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • a group of audience members approach a panelist to ask more questions after the event
    Pitt freshman and computer science major Nafee Jan (right) speaks with panelist and visiting assistant professor of history Zhaojin Zeng following the discussion. Zeng told the crowd the impact of the virus has been so great in his native country that “we’re seeing a China nobody could imagine before.” (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

Amid uncertainty and confusion about the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), two Pitt scientists, two Pitt historians and an epidemiologist from the Allegheny County Health Department gathered for a public panel discussion on Feb. 12 to present information and answer questions.

Sponsored by Pitt’s Asian Studies and Global Studies Centers, the event drew 250 people, many of them students. Pitt has 1,868 students from China, 53 of them from Hubei Province, home to the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated. 

“I immediately made the commitment to attend after I heard the anxiety from students regarding this health crisis,” said Karen Wagner, a department administrator in the School of Pharmacy. “I wanted to learn the basics, learn where to find the best information, and understand how to approach this situation.”

Topics ranged from: 

The birth of a virus

Megan Freeman, a pediatric infectious diseases senior fellow in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, explained step by step how a virus needs the right receptor to enter a cell. She said many species—cows, camels, bats and others—can get the coronavirus. But the species that transmitted this one hasn’t yet been identified. And, she said, there are 1,200 species of bats alone.

Pitt’s response to the crisis

Pitt to study novel coronavirus

On Feb. 12, Paul Duprex, director of Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research, announced that Pitt would be one of a few select institutions to receive samples of the coronavirus. Read more about the efforts.

Amy Hartman from Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research told attendees that her lab’s 15 independent researchers all study how pathogens cause disease and how vaccines can be designed to help. 

“We want our work to go from the academic world to the real world,” she said. The lab opened in response to the 9/11 terror attacks and that same year’s incidents of anthrax bioterrorism, part of a government push to build regional biocontainment labs across the country.

“We are part of the national biodefense and emerging infectious disease infrastructure,” she said. “And we respond in real time.” Hartman says she believes a vaccine against this new virus is possible, though the hurdles are getting it from a lab into clinical trials, through production and into a vaccine for the public.

A blow to China

Visiting Assistant Professor of History Zhaojin Zeng displayed a map of China’s high-speed train network, revealing the city of Wuhan directly in the middle of the grid. He said many Chinese travel by train, with passengers using hundreds of stops. 

“(China is) usually portrayed as a global powerhouse. Now we are seen as a country that needs help and assistance,” he said, adding that he feels a lot must be done on the Chinese government level to heal the shock and damage that has occurred.

The problem of stigmatization

According to Professor of History Mari Webel, associating diseases with a particular population has resulted in discrimination, isolation and violence in the past. She cited the anti-Chinese racism that swept through Toronto when it was impacted by the 2003 SARS outbreak. Not only does associating a disease with a particular region hurt that region’s economy, but people can be fired from jobs, stop eating at particular restaurants or tell their children not to sit next to a certain classmate. “It’s a combination of bigotry and information not grounded in accurate understandings of risk and prevention,” she said, and cautioned the audience against such behavior.

Challenging logistics

Allegheny County Health Department epidemiologist Kristen Mertz reminded attendees that as of Feb. 2, all passengers arriving on flights originating in China are passing through one of 11 airports and are being screened for risk and evidence of symptoms, but the logistics are overwhelming. She said some 20,000 to 30,000 people came through those airports in last week alone. The normal precautions against spreading respiratory illness are identifying and isolating cases, hand washing and disinfectant, and monitoring contacts. But Mertz said implementing these measures for this virus can be challenging because doctors are unsure if it can be transmitted before people show symptoms and there are a limited number of test kits.

Cutting through the rumors

All panelists reminded the audience to get their facts from reliable sources and reputable health journalists. Pitt’s Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management posts frequent updates. Once you have the facts, they said, retweet them or correct people. “Be the change that you wish to see,” said Webel.

The panelists received an enthusiastic response and a number of questions. Those in the audience remarked they liked the variety of information. “The connections between the two—the politics of it and the biology—it was perfect for the interests I have,” said Naeem Aziz, a Pitt junior who is pre-med and majoring in ecology.

For Oakland Catholic High School senior Emily Gong, the stigmatization was important to mention. “I’ve had other international students talk to me about how they’re being discriminated against,” she said. “People come up to them and ask them questions and it’s just the tone of their questions.” Gong did not say where this was happening, only that the students were in this country.

“I came because I keep seeing the number of cases grow,” said Janine Gould, a grants analyst in Pitt’s School of Nursing. “I’ve never been so aware of an epidemic up until now.”