Stuyvesant Hosts A Virologists Panel

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Issue 13, Volume 111

By Rania Zaki 

“Why don’t viruses ever get less deadly?” Professor of Epidemiology at New York University (NYU) Dr. Joshua M. Epistein asked. “It’s not in their best interest to kill their host.” There was slight laughter as the panelists nodded their heads, enjoying the irony of studying pathogenic viruses.

“There’s a lot of infections you’re not aware of, Josh,” colleague virologist and retired professor of microbiology at NYU Dr. Carol Reiss said. “It’s common for them to be attenuated.”

Organized by the Sophomore Caucus, the Virologists Speakers Panel consisted of five virologists—scientists involved in the prognosis and mechanisms of viruses—conversing about their specialized field. With approximately 100 faculty members, students, and scientists in attendance, the event concluded with a Q&A with the speakers.

The keynote speakers were local scientists Dr. Reiss, Dr. Epstein, and Assistant Professor at Columbia University Dr. Nischay Mishra. Additionally, there were speakers from outside the city, such as Dr. Elliot Lefkowitz and Dr. Todd Green, professors at the University of Alabama. The discussion on the speaker's panel constituted three sections: the basics of virology, the current developments in the field, and explanation of vaccines, especially the COVID-19 vaccine. “We wanted to establish a panel of affirmative speakers that could answer most of the questions the student body has about the pandemic,” sophomore and panel moderator Andrey Sokolov said.

With a specific demographic in mind, the Sophomore Caucus wanted to bring in virologists for another reason. “There are a lot of misconceptions and questions [and we wanted to] make sure that people are focusing on what’s important, and that’s the truth and facts,” sophomore and event organizer Iris Chan said.

From viral loads between asymptomatic and symptomatic patients with Dr. Reiss to the impact X-ray crystallogy has on our understanding of virology with Dr. Green, each speaker sparked important discussions. Vaccines took center stage in Dr. Mishra’s presentation, when he elaborated on how the COVID-19 vaccine was created. “Many people [are] hesitant. They say ‘I don’t want to take this vaccine, it came in three months, I don’t want to be [a] lab rat,’” Dr. Mishra said during the panel. “But that’s not true.”

Generally, vaccines take a longer time due to multiple phases in their development. However, the COVID-19 vaccine scenario was different. “We had some basic data for [SARS-]COV-1, we had some kind of structure that was being used for the mass-coronavirus vaccine as well as the Ebola vaccine, [...] we had an enormous amount of funding, [and] we had [an] emergency,” Dr. Mishra said. “We don’t see the perfect vaccine […] it’s like flying a plane and also building it. That’s why this vaccine doesn’t work with this variant. And the other doesn’t work very well with another variant.”

Some aspects of the panelists’ work were very recognizable to Stuyvesant students. In the introduction of Dr. Epstein’s presentation, “Agent-Based Modeling in Public Health: From Playground to Planet,” many sophomores, juniors, and seniors became aware of the black box with the moving stick-figures on the screen, a model described as Sugarcane. Dr. Epstein used a platform called Netlogo to perform a contract tracing between a scenario of one sick child and healthy children, showing how “R naught,” a mathematical term that indicates how contagious a disease is, and the effectiveness of herd immunity, determine risks during a pandemic. “Agent-based modeling is a very powerful way to model public health challenges [...] at scales ranging from playground to platform,” Dr. Epstein said.

Since many students learned about Netlogo through their Introduction to Computer Science class, the presentation was more familiar to the student body, emphasizing the value education has on impacting our understanding of the pandemic. “One of [Dr. Epstein’s] main accomplishments is Sugarcane, and it was coded through Netlogo. And I think it's super relevant, as computer science is a class we are required to take as sophomores,” Chan said.

As with all models, human behavior is a confounding variable, one of irrationality and unforeseen predilection. Many speakers chimed in that refusal of vaccines and masks can forestall herd immunity. “It’s an invitation for more waves. This is not the time to do that. We are on the verge of a [public domain] vaccine and real herd immunity,” Dr. Epstein said.

Dr. Mishra added, “A lot of states are not mandating masks [...] it’s like a moth climbing on a stick every three inches skips back two inches […] you will never reach to the top of the stick.”

With public high schools reopening on March 22, the panelists all advocated for good ventilation, masks, and vaccinations. “By increasing the arsenal and eventually pushing it out, everybody has access [and] you are able to begin to live with the virus, to start to approach something that looks more like normal than what we had before,” Dr. Lefkowitz said. “We can only look on trying to approach a new normal,” Sokolov said. And as time progresses, this new normal is becoming infinitely more clear.