Harvard School of Public Health epidemiologist Megan B. Murray said the U.S. faces a grim period as the coronavirus surges nationwide, but noted optimism signs regarding vaccine development during a Tuesday Q&A with journalist Elana Gordon.
Murray answered questions from Facebook Live viewers on the current landscape of the coronavirus pandemic during the event, which was presented jointly by the School of Public Health and The World, a nationally syndicated public radio show hosted by Boston NPR affiliate WGBH.
Murray said American Thanksgiving celebrations could lead to a rise in coronavirus cases and deaths, particularly due to mixing age groups.
“We’re expecting that today might be the beginning of a surge about five or six days out from Thanksgiving,” she said. “If there were infections that took place then, they would start to become symptomatic around now. That will continue over the next few days and then there will be secondary and tertiary cases.”
Gordon asked Murray to describe recently discovered insights into how the virus functions, including why some people seem to get sicker than others.
“I think it’s increasingly clear that there is a potential genetic signal, especially if you look at people who are completely unaffected and people who are really sick,” Murray said.
Many audience members’ questions focused on potential vaccines. Murray noted there are significant logistical challenges associated with some of the vaccine candidates, citing a Pfizer vaccine that must be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit.
“There’s many rural parts of the U.S. that don’t have hospitals or health care facilities that have access to a freezer that can store vaccines at that temperature,” Murray said.
“Fortunately for us, there’s a lot of variety in the kinds of vaccines that can be made,” she added, noting that other vaccine candidates — including those from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — do not appear to require extreme temperature controls.
Gordon asked Murray to evaluate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield’s claim that some Americans could begin to receive vaccinations by mid-December.
“I think surprisingly, it is realistic to assume that as soon as there’s FDA emergency use authorization, that the rollout will happen,” Murray said, adding that the timeline will also be contingent on manufacturing speed and the distribution plan.
Other audience questions covered topics such as the need for deep nasal swabbing during coronavirus tests, whether the United States actually has the most cases in the world, and the possible effects on herd immunity from Americans who oppose vaccinations.
Gordon concluded by asking about the similarities between the subject of Murray’s previous research, tuberculosis, and the coronavirus. Murray mentioned that research on tuberculosis is neglected despite its high prevalence in certain, typically low-income parts of the world, in contrast to the rapid research and promising vaccine development for the coronavirus.
“It’s a story about poverty and I’m hoping that the world will take a lesson from this that its problems can be solved,” Murray said.