Eric Douglas Published

Marshall University Virologist Talks COVID-19 And Flu

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Terry Fenger is a virologist at the Marshall University School of Medicine. For more than 40 years, he has been teaching medical students about viruses they may encounter in their practice — from influenza to the coronavirus.

He spoke with reporter Eric Douglas about the current pandemic and how it may interact with the coming flu season.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Tell me about the infectious nature of the coronavirus.

Terry Fenger.jpg

Dr. Terry Fenger, a virologist at the Marshall University School of Medicine.

Fenger: Well, there’s a spectrum of infectivity out there with all these viruses that we come in contact with as humans. And within that spectrum certain viruses are easily transmittable and are highly infectious. I would put SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus, in the realm of highly infectious.

Some viruses take tens of thousands of virus particles to initiate an infection in a susceptible human host. With the coronavirus it takes potentially 1,000 virus particles.

Douglas: We’re obviously getting into the standard flu season right now. How do you see the flu virus and the coronavirus mixing together?

Fenger: The fact that influenza is about to come upon us, we have to be concerned that people are vaccinated against influenza to eliminate one of these possible respiratory viruses. I’m a proponent of vaccination. I will say it right up front. I know my family will be vaccinated against influenza virus.

Douglas: Everybody’s masking, everybody’s staying apart. Theoretically that will actually help with the issues of the flu season as well as the coronavirus.

Fenger: And that’s a good point because from reports coming out of the Southern Hemisphere, this is their winter. This is their flu season. And it appears that because individuals have been wearing masks and social distancing, and possibly they’re increasingly vaccinating against the flu, the frequency of influenza has decreased compared to previous years.

Douglas: Do you feel masks make a difference?

Fenger: Personally I do and it really makes a difference if two people come in contact with each other and both of them have masks on.

Douglas: Do you think we’ll find an effective vaccine for this?

Fenger: I have all the trust in the world that the various pharmaceutical companies will come up with an effective vaccine. Now that’s not to say that one vaccine will protect you for the rest of your life. There may be something that comes along like influenza that I mean yearly or every other year you have to have a slightly different type of coronavirus vaccine.

Douglas: Have we seen that kind of mutation in the coronavirus?

Fenger: Well, coronavirus is an RNA virus. That means that rather than having DNA as its central genetic molecule, it has RNA. And RNA viruses, in general, have a tendency to mutate. I would anticipate that coronavirus will sustain mutations over time and variance will develop.

Douglas: What are people in my business getting wrong?

Fenger: Oh, I don’t know about the business of reporting. But the general population, I think, needs to put trust in science. From what I read in the general news, a lot of people distrust science, that there’s some hidden agenda. But for me personally, and I can’t speak for anybody but myself, I’m putting trust in the ability to develop vaccines, and to develop an understanding why this particular virus is so infectious and what we can do to stop it with the development of drugs along with the other antiviral drugs that can be used.

Douglas: Can we expect more of this? Do you see more viruses coming out of nowhere?

Fenger: Well, there are experts out there who discuss emerging diseases. There’s a lot of factors and what we might consider a new disease. One is global travel. A person can be in one part of the world today and two days later on the other side of the earth, so that’s one consideration.

With the warming of the climate, we’re now seeing what we call insect vectors that used to be in the subtropical or tropical areas that are now found north. What one might anticipate is that the virus is also going to be present in other places. I tell my medical students, “When you’re out there practicing, you may see some virus infections that your predecessors rarely saw.”

Douglas: How does life need to change to avoid problems like this in the future?

Fenger: I wish I had a crystal ball on that one. But I just think the fact that we now are aware that a pandemic can come along. A couple years ago, it was a point of academic discussion that, well, someday, we may have a pandemic. We were thinking primarily of influenza virus from new strain influenza. But now, this pandemic has put this whole concept of infectious diseases in the forefront, that everybody in the United States, or world, is now aware of how infectious these viruses and bacteria can be so I think we need to develop an infrastructure that will address this.

Douglas: So, to a degree this has been a wake-up call, it’s not theoretical anymore. This is real and we need to be prepared for it.

Fenger: I think you are correct.

Fenger gives second-year medical students at the Marshall University School of Medicine 27 hours of lectures on viruses each year.

This conversation is brought to you by Appalachia Health News, a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, made possible by Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.