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Crystal Del Valle

COVID-19 is impacting nearly every aspect of daily life, and it continues to spread. As of Wednesday afternoon, Eau Claire County had five confirmed cases, and Wisconsin had 585 cases and six deaths.

Crystal Del Valle, an assistant biology professor at UW-Eau Claire with a Ph.D., is teaching a course this semester on current topics related to virology and immunology, a class that could not be more relevant. Del Valle, who noted that any opinions expressed are only hers, spoke with the Leader-Telegram recently about the process to create a vaccine, why the virus is so contagious, and incorrect terms regarding COVID-19.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Did you think COVID-19 had the potential to have such a significant impact?

I definitely didn’t think it would come to this scale. This hasn’t happened in our lifetimes, so we don’t really anticipate something like this happening.

Is there a certain aspect you’re most worried about?

Flattening the curve is a huge concern, because as the number of cases go up and up and up very steeply, we overload the health care system. If we do not have enough health care workers, hospital beds, ventilators, etc., we can’t care for the numbers of patients that are coming in. And with that, people who could maybe be helped are getting not quite turned away, but they’re not getting the proper care that they could be getting … Now there’s the addition of added deaths that probably didn’t need to be there.

What’s your sense of when a vaccine for this might be made? I’ve seen about a year-and-a-half; is that right?

Yeah … Creation of a vaccine takes time. First is the basic research of designing, and typically testing, in cells or an animal model before moving onto human trials. And then once you’re in human trials, you have to undergo three different phases of clinical trials before you can get (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approval. Even once you have that, you’re talking about mass production of the vaccine and then actually getting that out there to the public, so it is a long process, unfortunately. Obviously they’re trying to streamline a lot of it.

What (researchers funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) are doing right now is giving it to healthy people, not to people who have the virus, and effectively what they’re doing is enrolling 45 healthy adults and then breaking them down into three different groupings, and these three different groupings are given different doses of the vaccine … In any phase 1 clinical trial, you want to determine the best dose for usage, and basically you want the highest dose possible that’s going to be effective but with minimum side effects. The second thing is “Does it actually work? Does it induce an immune response?”

No one has immunity to this disease, right? That’s why it’s spreading so much?

Exactly. There’s a concept in microbiology that we call “herd immunity.” … Let’s say you have a room of 10 people, and nine people have an immune response to whatever the infectious agent is. If you have nine of the 10 who are immune, whether they have seen the virus before, have gotten the disease and recovered from it and have an immune response or they were vaccinated, which creates an immune response, they can no longer be carriers … and in a way, they are protecting the one person who isn’t immune. In this case, we’re at the opposite extreme, where there is no herd immunity. This is the first time humans are coming into contact with it.

Are there common misconceptions you’re seeing?

The fact that some people keep referencing this virus as either a “foreign virus” or a “Chinese virus,” which, last I checked, viruses didn’t have ethnicities or nationalities. If you want to refer to a virus in terms of its origin, then you should verbalize it as such, and say that this virus seemed to originate in China.

This goes back to something we call the ecology of disease … A lot of these viruses, even these new, emerging viruses, they’re coming from a natural source and then jumping sometimes into intermediate animals and then humans. This could happen anywhere in the world.

Any other comments or information you think people should be aware of?

One alternative I thought about for hand sanitizer: go the first aid section, look for antiseptics … a lot of these are liquid, so instead of hand sanitizer in your car, if you can get a bottle of antiseptic, you can use that to try to wipe your hands down, but then try to think of everything to wipe down. In your car: your steering wheel, your shifter, your light, your wiper knob. If you go to the grocery store, wipe down that handle. Disinfecting wipes are the best for that. Your house: doorknobs, light switches, the handle to your toilet, anything that people touch frequently, those need to be disinfected.

Why is it so hard for people not to touch their faces?

You’ve just gotta train yourself. It’s kind of like avoiding handshakes and going to elbow bumps. Do the same thing with your face. If you really have an itch on your face, try not to use your fingers … I also do the same thing whenever I open doors, especially if they’re push doors, I use my arms or my shoulder to push it open.