March 10, 2021Print | PDF
As a virologist who studies the innate antiviral immune response, Stephanie DeWitte-Orr has unique expertise to contribute in the fight against COVID-19. We asked the associate professor of Health Sciences and Biology at Wilfrid Laurier University about her latest research, vaccinations and why sharing her knowledge with the public is important.
How does your research further our understanding of the pandemic?
Stephanie DeWitte-Orr: “I study viruses and I focus on the innate immune system response, which is a unique perspective to have. There aren’t a lot of virologists in Canada. With the SARS-COV-2 virus in particular, the innate immune response looks like it can be quite critical in dictating whether you're going to have an asymptomatic, mild or more severe case. Because I can look at data from both of those angles, it gives me a good basis to be able to interpret what's going on.”
You have been studying two antiviral drugs which could be used to prevent respiratory virus infection. What other COVID-19-related research have you been conducting?
SDO: “We recently found a new cell line that we can use as a model for studying coronaviruses. It's an important finding because a lot of the cell lines that are currently used to study coronaviruses have compromised or mutated immune responses, which makes it really difficult to study how the virus and host interact. This new cell line supports coronavirus replication, so we can study that interaction at the cellular level.”
How does it feel to be referred to as an “expert” during an unprecedented pandemic?
SDO: “There is still so much we don't know about this virus and that's a constant battle when you're trying to educate the community. You're just one step ahead of the unknown essentially. I try to stick to the facts. And I am always very clear that this is what we know now and that things can change.
“When cloth masks first came out, I compared them to an N95 respirator and there's no comparison in how they work. But it turns out that cloth masks do work and they are helpful, particularly when you’re doing population-wide masking and giving everyone a properly fitted N95 is not feasible. We do our best with what we know at the time.”
Why do you feel it is important to share your knowledge with the public by acting as an expert source?
SDO: “There is so much miscommunication out there, so I want to lend my voice to add clarity. I want to share a scientific perspective in an approachable manner so that the information is not scary or intimidating. ‘These are the things you can do to protect yourself. The vaccines are working,’ things like that. I want to be able to communicate that information to our community because I think it's important that they know.”
One year into the pandemic, are you surprised that we have multiple vaccines approved?
SDO: “I'm really excited and pleased and I wouldn't have predicted this at all. As a scientist, you are trained to be scientifically critical. And I still have some concerns about these being new vaccine platforms that have been untested in human populations for vaccines. But the fact that they are working so well and that they have such good safety profiles is a real feat. What scientists have achieved in such a short period of time is astounding.”
People are having a hard time conceptualizing that they can be vaccinated, but also still potentially transmit the virus to others. Can you explain that?
SDO: “It is very likely that if a vaccine is working to stop serious infections, then it's going to be limiting transmission. The reason why that's not part of the narrative for these vaccines is because they didn't test it. When they ran the clinical trials, they only tested participants who had symptoms. They didn't test everybody. If they had just tested everybody routinely throughout the trial, they could make those claims. But they didn't, and I wasn’t a part of vaccine trials so I can’t say why. But knowing what we know about how vaccines work, the likelihood of being vaccinated and being a carrier with no symptoms is quite low.”