From the Dean: Two viruses, two symposia

This week the faculty of the School held virtual symposia organized through the auspices of two of our research capacity-expanding grants sponsored and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The first symposium was on Tuesday and centered on investigations related to host-pathogen interactions (HPI), especially by microbial pathogens. Obviously, the subject of microbial-human interactions is of great importance in this era of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The symposium was a mixture of presentations by invited experts along with talks by our local investigators. While I wasn’t able to attend the entire symposium, the parts that I was able to catch were first-rate.

The symposium was especially timely as it coincided with the just-announced renewal of the grant in what the NIH calls Phase 2 of a Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (CoBRE) grant for our HPI team, involving another five years of funding at almost $11 million. The grant that supports our HPI efforts is one of the capacity-building grants sponsored by the NIH under the CoBRE, and has helped SMHS researchers study both SARS-CoV-2 and influenza. Under NIH rules, institutions are limited to three CoBREs, which is how many we have; the other two are in the fields of epigenetics and the impact of historical trauma on Indigenous peoples. Congratulations to the HPI (now re-named host-microbe) team led by principal investigators Drs. Colin Combs and David Bradley. Additionally, the External Advisory Board, a group of national and international experts in the field, visited us simultaneous to the symposium and offered valuable feedback on the progress of the grant effort. Needless to say, the members were quite positive in their assessment of how the grant is progressing.

The other symposium is scheduled for tomorrow and is sponsored by our INBRE program, led by principal investigator Dr. Don Sens. INBRE stands for the North Dakota IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, and one of its major aims is to help ignite the careers of undergraduate students interested in research. The morning and afternoon sessions will include short talks by North Dakota INBRE faculty; the undergraduate research poster session will be split into morning and afternoon sessions. In the afternoon, there will be speakers presenting on the topics of medical school and graduate school applications. As in prior years, award winners from the North Dakota State Science & Engineering Fair have been invited to present their research during the poster sessions.

I was invited to give opening remarks at both symposia, and my comments for both centered on our collective (UND, North Dakota, USA, world) response to the pandemic. I highlighted the spectacular scientific accomplishments related to the pandemic but also lamented some of our public health-related shortcomings and challenges. The most impressive scientific (and commercial production) accomplishment obviously was the development and deployment of several incredibly effective vaccines in less than a year – from the identification of the presumed first patient with SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan, China on Dec. 31, 2019, and the reporting of the genetic sequence of the virus on Jan. 10, 2020 (fewer than two weeks later), to the first human inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine in the United Kingdom on Dec. 8, 2020. Producing a vaccine in such a short time had never been done before. It is important to note that despite the speed of vaccine production there has been no shortcutting of long-established safety protocols and procedures during the development of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. And the productive scale-up of the pharmaceutical industry also has been phenomenal – according to Bloomberg, more than 6 billion doses have been administered worldwide so far!

On the other hand, even that huge number of shots means that only about 40% of the world’s population has been vaccinated thus far – and the vaccination rate is far less in the poorer and less-developed parts of the world. Widespread (including home) testing for infection is far from universally available, and there has been suboptimal coordination nationally of the various federal agencies involved in the pandemic response, including the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Hopefully, we will learn from this experience and be better prepared for the future. If the past is any guide to the future, this is not going to be the last pandemic the world will face. So please get vaccinated, be safe, wear a mask as appropriate, and remember that we are headed into the flu season, so get your flu shot too. As you know by now, getting a flu shot is especially important this year in so far as it can help reduce the burden on our already stressed healthcare system in the middle of a pandemic. In fact, you may be able to get your flu and COVID-19 shot (for those of you not yet fully vaccinated) simultaneously – be sure to check with your health care provider!

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences