Virus hunter and Professor of Immunology, Cassandra Berry shares how we can use the COVID-19 pandemic to fight infectious diseases epidemics at the same time.
One of the most pressing healthcare challenges we face in the coming decade is stopping infectious diseases. Tuberculosis alone causes around 1.2 million deaths per year and hundreds of thousands still die from AIDS. Most of them in poorer, less developed nations.
Screening for diseases and immunising against them are two key steps to reducing transmission.
However, the pandemic is threatening progress with WHO and UNICEF warning of alarming declines in routine vaccination rates.
But the fight against epidemics can be won. Here, we explore some of the tools we have to fight the likes of HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases – key targets of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3.
Professor Cassandra Berry, who studies infectious disease pathogenesis, vaccines and therapeutics, shares the path ahead and how her work is helping pave it.
Which to tackle first – epidemics or pandemics?
Professor Berry says the answer isn’t linear and instead lies in a two-pronged approach – using COVID-19 as an opportunity to screen for and fight other infectious diseases.
“There is no doubt that COVID-19 is the priority right now, but this won’t be our last pandemic,” said Professor Berry.
It is the first time the world is seeing collaboration on a global scale, pulling mass funding and resources together to roll out an accelerated, global vaccination program.
“We can actually use COVID-19 to fight other diseases. Instead of neglecting them, we can apply the global knowledge and resources being put into COVID-19 research to our approach on suppressing the transmission of other infectious diseases,” said Professor Berry.
Increasing early detection of HIV is one example.
“If you think about the first symptoms of having HIV, people present a fever and chills, aching muscles, and maybe a headache. These are all flu-like symptoms and in our current climate, people are encouraged to get a COVID test,” said Professor Berry.
“However, if the test comes back negative, we’re seeing people shrug it off as just a common cold. In fact, we really need to use this opportunity to screen for other infections like HIV, influenza or tuberculosis.
“This is how epidemics are simmering away.”
Professor Berry says one way forward is to follow suit of co-testing procedures taking place in regions like China and Sub-Saharan Africa, where they are screening for HIV and tuberculosis, alongside COVID-19 infections.
“It’s a simple way to start a dialogue followed by treatment with affected patients that may not have otherwise been screened for these infectious diseases.”
Using universal vaccines and boosters
While universal vaccines may sound like a distant dream in a world hyper-focussed on a single pandemic, according to Professor Berry, we’re not as far off as you might think.
Professor Berry explains scientists around the world are already developing universal vaccines for many infectious diseases trialling virus vaccines including multivalent and other multiple vaccine types used in prime-boost regimes that offer broad immunity to many variants.
“There is a common misconception that universal vaccines are a form of magic antidote to cure all diseases. However, it’s not just one jab for all viruses, it’s actually creating a universal vaccine for different types of diseases where viral mutants exist.
“We have innovative universal vaccines under development for ebola, dengue, respiratory syncytial virus and hepatitis C virus and we’re close to creating a robust one for influenzas. And if we do that, it’s likely COVID won’t be far off.”
Image caption: Young woman being vaccinated. Credit: Getty Images
Universal vaccines activate our immune system to focus on what’s shared and common between different strains or variants of a virus to stimulate broad protection.
“This will have huge benefits for the community as less frequent vaccinations will be required and with higher herd immunity, virus outbreaks will be reduced,” said Professor Berry.
“Individuals would have less vaccines scheduled in their life and longer lasting immune memory to provide wider protection against circulating variants of a virus and even those yet to emerge in the future.”
Interferons are proteins released into our cells in response to a foreign invasion by dangerous pathogens, like the entry of a virus.
“Our research has identified how we could exploit interferons and use them as therapy. They work as an antiviral and provide immediate protection for our cells like a shield of armour against virus invasion. We make numerous types of interferon in our bodies, but some viruses can block them in combat,” said Professor Berry.
“If we treat people that are virus-infected with these interferons, then their immune responses are boosted allowing us to quickly win the fight against the virus.”
A form of interferon therapy is currently being trialled for COVID and has decreased hospitalisation days and cleared the virus faster that those untreated.
“It is a miracle antiviral intervention for those with severe disease,” said Professor Berry.
“We can’t fight infectious diseases on every front. Directing resources into universal vaccine design for those we don’t have any protection or cures for should be a priority for the future of public health.”
Winning the fight with awareness and access
Professor Berry remains an avid virus hunter and says that while understanding cell biology and innovative vaccine design is the way forward, raising awareness of the devastating effects of infectious diseases is more important than ever.
“Public awareness is a large part of science.”
“At the end of the day, we can continually research and create as many therapies needed to stop infectious diseases, but how good are they if people don’t know they exist or are hesitant to take medical advice?”
Between writing for The Conversation and appearing on CNN International, Professor Berry has been sharing her expertise on immunology widely, most recently debunking myths of COVID vaccinations. From a laptop screen at Murdoch University’s Perth campus, she’s educating millions around the world.
If we really want to beat infectious disease epidemics, it’s not enough to make people aware of the beneficial health effects. We need to increase global access to vaccines and cures to improve equity.” Professor Cassandra Berry
“There are so many different vaccine types and manufacturing processes out there. Ideally, as a scientific community, we should select a vaccine type that can be made cheaply and quickly, in abundant supply to meet demands and able to be readily distributed at the right temperatures to developing countries.”
“It’s a global concerted effort, not a race amongst jostling countries. That’s how we win the fight in unity.”
This research supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3 to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.