A new virus, emergent from Wuhan in central China, seems to be spreading fast. And UVM is responding fast, too. “We know these epidemics evolve quickly,” said Cindy Noyes, M.D., (above) an infectious disease specialist who co-leads the University of Vermont Medical Center’s preparations for the potential arrival of novel diseases like SARS, Ebola—and now this coronavirus, 2019-nCoV.

In addition to a careful count of masks and other extensive planning at the hospital, Noyes stressed the value of “temporizing people’s anxiety,” she said. “What is the risk? There’s a lot we don't understand yet.”

She was speaking to an array of scientists, physicians, and students as part of a first-ever on-campus “virus slam,” on February 6th, organized in just a few days by the university’s Translational Global Infectious Diseases Research Center. Over two hours, some twenty experts, from five UVM colleges and institutes, gave five-minute mini-talks. These stretched from explaining the biochemistry of the virus’ interaction with the human immune system; to interpreting the latest data from the World Health Organization; to pondering the wisdom of an unprecedented effort to bring new vaccines from lab to clinic in 16 weeks; to noting the eons-long ecological dynamics that have led bats to be key reservoirs of viruses.

The experts were sharing knowledge, challenging forecasting models, reporting out on their own research—and considering what needs to be explored now to best confront this new disease.

An important fact is that animals host numerous different coronaviruses and that these can undergo “recombinations" said UVM molecular biologist Markus Thali. Such recombinations between different viruses, together with other genetic changes, can contribute to the emergence of novel coronaviruses. And once one of these new viruses—such as the 2019-nCov (or SARS-CoV-2, as it has been officially baptized)—start spreading within the human population, it can undergo further, subtle mutations, comparable to what doctors observe with influenza virus.

"We still need to learn a lot about this new virus," said Thali, but he strongly cautions against panic, guessing that based on what is known so far about this new coronavirus, when it starts spreading in the U.S., it might present a public health challenge similar to a bad—but not catastrophic—flu season. Still, so much is unknown. “Welcome to medicine,” said Dr. Noyes to a student in the audience.


Joshua E. Brown