Q&A: Dr. William Petri on COVID-19, Vaccines and the Pandemic

Woman and Child Wearing Masks and using hand sanitizerCOVID-19 cases are spiking in many areas of the United States. More than 4.4 million Americans have tested positive for the disease, and many millions more are likely to have been exposed or infected. More than 150,000 have died. Worldwide, 16.5 million people have tested positive, and more than 650,000 have died. The virus is not going away.

However, several new vaccines are entering Phase III clinical trials. And researchers worldwide, and at the University of Virginia, are seeking and identifying more effective treatments for the disease, as well as innovative vaccines designed to provide long-lasting protection. Meanwhile, standard preventive measures – mask-wearing, hand washing and physical distancing – are reducing disease transmission.

Dr. William Petri, a chaired professor of infectious diseases and international health at UVA and vice chair for research in the Department of Medicine, is studying the effects of the disease on the immune system, and seeking new treatments and vaccines.

Here he discusses COVID-19 for readers of UVA Today.

Q. What is the most striking thing you’ve learned about this disease?

A. The most striking thing is the extreme degree to which the immune system is activated in patients with severe COVID-19. In our lab we study many infectious diseases, including highly inflammatory ones, and they all pale compared to the immune activation with COVID-19 that Mary Young, a researcher in our lab, has observed. We’re testing a hypothesis that the immune system is actually making things worse when responding to this coronavirus.

We’ve learned through our work with researcher Allie Donlan in the Carter Immunology Center that a signaling molecule called Interleukin 13 – which can contribute to lung damage – is much more frequently elevated in people requiring mechanical ventilation than in people whose infection is less severe. In the mouse model of SARS-CoV-2 infection that infectious diseases professor Barb Mann has developed, neutralization of IL-13 is protective from COVID-19. Fortunately, therapies for turning off this part of the immune system already exist, and are approved for treating allergic lung disease. So, it could be a short path to a clinical trial specifically for treating the inflammation of COVID-19 by inhibiting or neutralizing Interleukin 13. We are continuing to explore this in our own lab.

Read the entire story by Fariss Samarrai at UVA Today.