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30 April 2020
Combatting Covid-19 Through Communication & Collaboration: Taking Science To The People

(Published - 30 April 2020)

“The fundamental purpose of science is to ask questions. But if we don’t share the answers, what’s the point? Simply put, science and research are done for the benefit of the public, for society. And we have a responsibility to inform the community about what is going on.”

Medical researcher Dewald Schoeman takes that responsibility very seriously – especially now. That’s why the University of the Western Cape PhD candidate is speaking out about his field of research: human coronaviruses.

“We know how Covid-19 spreads, and by sharing this information, we can teach the public how to protect themselves and their loved ones,” he says. “It’s important that we continue to inform the public about issues that are relevant to their health and future. Sharing our knowledge can help to prevent panic – and limit the spread of the infection.”

Working with his supervisor, UWC Director of Research (and noted coronavirus expert) Prof Burtram Fielding, Schoeman has focused his research on the Human Coronavirus NL63 envelope protein, with a particular interest in the role of protein to protein interactions, both within the virus and between virus and host.

“Viruses basically hijack your cells, forcing them to make more copies of the virus,” he explains. “They do this by using their viral proteins to interact with the proteins of the infected cell – and my research mainly focuses on finding a way to disrupt these interactions. If we can stop the viral proteins from interacting with the infected host cell proteins at various levels, we can essentially stop the disease itself – and even the spread of the virus.”

Here’s what he has to say about communicating Covid-19, how we can stay safe, and why we really, really, shouldn’t panic.

What should we as the public be doing during these troubled times?

Stay safe and act responsibly. Yes, some might have a milder infection than most people, but elderly people and those with compromised immune systems or chronic medical conditions are more vulnerable and have a higher risk of developing a more severe infection. So don’t let your actions cause someone else to become infected, even if you’re fine.

Get the facts! Fake news is probably spreading faster than the infection, but there are many sources of credible information out there. Try trusted sources  like the WHO, South Africa’s NICD, the Department of Health, and the UWC Covid-19 portal, who have reliable, up-to-date information. Not voice notes and sketchy videos.

Cooperation is key. We all feel the effects of the lockdown in some way or another, but it’s crucial to controlling Covid-19. With no vaccine or licensed antiviral treatment currently available, we rely heavily on public health measures such as the lockdown, social distancing, and proper hygienic practice to stop the spread of Covid-19. Complete cooperation is the only way it will work.

Why is everyone so worried about Covid-19?

We are concerned about how fast Covid-19 is spreading, and its potential to progress into a significantly more severe disease. I’ve heard people describe Covid-19 as a “bad flu” and there is some truth to that. But in the past month alone, the US has seen more than 10 000 people die from Covid-19, and globally Covid-19 has killed hundreds of thousands. How many more might die? We don’t know. Only time will tell.

Isn’t it true that some other diseases affect more people than Covid-19?

I hear this a lot – that “malaria kills this many people per year” and that “people die on a massive scale every year due to cancer”, and even that “more people die from car accidents than Covid-19”. But those diseases are familiar to us – we’ve known about them for years, even decades. But Covid-19 is an emerging infection, and we’ve only known about it for about five months – so we don’t know what it can do over the span of a year or two. Furthermore, Covid-19 isn’t going to stop people dying of cancer – this is an additional problem, and one that can cause even more lives to be lost.

What do we still need to know about Covid-19?

We still don’t know how it interacts with other health problems. Evidence suggests that persons with high blood pressure are more at risk for complications if they should become infected with Covid-19. Worldwide, millions of people suffer from high blood pressure, which makes them a vulnerable group. There might be more vulnerable groups that we don’t know of - and we should. 

Why is it so important for scientists to talk to the public about their work?

Education is one of the most effective forms of intervention. Scientists inherently communicate through facts – and by giving the public the facts, however frightening they may seem, scientists are helping the public to protect themselves and their loved ones. Science and research directly impacts the public, so it only makes sense that we talk about ongoing research and science publicly. 

Do we really have a chance to beat this pandemic?

The SARS outbreak from 2003 was effectively stopped in six months due to strict isolation and quarantine measures – and they had no cure for the virus either! And already, China has been able to lift their Covid-19 lockdown, after seeing significantly reduced numbers of infected cases. By communicating the facts, we can work together to drastically reduce the spread of the infection.