Illustration of the COVID-19 virus and medicine

Faculty lay out the science behind COVID-19

April 13, 2021

Research & Innovation

Staying on top of the latest about the COVID-19 virus and its prevention and treatment can be challenging. Recently, a group of University of Richmond faculty from across science disciplines updated the University community in a virtual panel discussion called “The Science Behind COVID-19.”

They covered topics from risk mitigation to the genetics behind vaccines.

Professor Joanna Wares, a mathematical medical science expert, shared information about herd immunity and vaccinations. “If you’re going for a herd immunity strategy without a vaccine, everyone would have to be infected to become immune, which is what we are trying to avoid,” Wares said.

Biology professor Krista Stenger gave an in-depth presentation on the immune system and viral infections. “Vaccines mimic the first exposure, which generates the memory cells, without the individual getting ill,” Stenger said. “Then if they are exposed again, they will exhibit the secondary response, eliminating the infection before it takes hold and preventing the individual from getting sick.”

Priscilla Erikson, an evolutionary geneticist in the biology department, detailed the COVID-19 variants and mutations. “Some of the mutations have no effect on the virus. Sometimes they have negative effects and cause the virus to die. However, sometimes the mutation makes the virus better at being able to infect us,” Erikson said. She also detailed first-hand experiences with the vaccine, assisting with the rollout in Virginia as a volunteer. 

Disease ecologist Jory Brinkerhoff studies infectious diseases, specifically zoonotic diseases, which are caused by a pathogen that jumps from animals to humans. “Zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, are more challenging than human-specific diseases because they occur in much more complex systems,” Brinkerhoff said. 

Biology professor Eugene Wu, an expert on viruses, described vaccine basics. “A vaccine tries to give your immune system a head start by showing it what the virus feels like so the immune system can learn the pathogen ahead of time,” said Wu, who also facilitated the panel.