Carnegie Mellon University

Dr. Amesh Adalja

June 03, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Amesh Adalja Answers the World’s Questions About COVID-19

By Amanda S.F. Hartle

As the world looks for voices to offer scientifically-solid information on COVID-19, alumnus and physician Amesh Adalja (TPR 1995) has quite literally answered the call — sharing his expertise with the public via CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and countless others.

A senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, Amesh focuses on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity, and he has been published on those topics more than 100 times in medical and scientific journals including “JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association,” “Emerging Infectious Diseases,” “New England Journal of Medicine,” and “Health Security,” where he is also an associate editor.

Throughout his career, he’s served on U.S. government panels to develop guidelines for how to treat mass infections of plague, botulism, and anthrax as well as the community-based collaboration and response across agencies for infectious disease emergencies.

We asked Amesh (who you can follow on Twitter for even more information) to share his thoughts on various aspects of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

There’s a lot of talk about “getting back to normal.” What sort of world should we be preparing for until a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available?

The virus is going to be with us until there is a vaccine as the virus hasn't changed biologically based on all the social distancing that we've done. There are going to be a lot of changes that are ushered in because of this virus including some that were on the cusp of happening anyway. Those changes are going to happen faster than expected because people have learned to live digitally very quickly.

Many people are going to continue taking steps to try and avoid exposure to the virus even though there's not an official stay-at-home order in place from many parts of the country.

That may mean people in high-risk groups may be much more leery of interacting with individuals than they were in the past. We're going to see restaurants and other venues open back up, but maybe less people will go to them, even if they aren't limited in capacity, because people have gotten used to ordering online. The same is true for travel — people may be more likely to drive rather than fly somewhere. Business meetings may be conducted virtually rather than in-person.

When it comes to mass gatherings, for example, you really can't fathom having them until there's a vaccine because the sheer number of exposures that could occur could overwhelm any health department's contact tracing ability and lead to undetected cases that end up straining hospitals again.

What is the largest challenge you see facing the world’s population going forward during this pandemic?

The United States hasn't really faced an endemic new infectious disease like this since the 1918 pandemic, so many people have gotten a sense of security from infectious diseases.

I think the largest challenge is going to be adapting to life with this virus because now every time you step out the door, it's going to be something that you have to think about while trying to have some semblance of a normal life. Each person is going to have to think for themselves, it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all response. What is their risk tolerance? What is essential and important for them to do? What isn't? What's the personal hierarchy of values and how does this virus change how they pursue those values?

What are some misconceptions about COVID-19 that you feel need to be more widely shared?

The biggest misconception about coronavirus is that this came out of nowhere and was unpredictable. Many of us in the field have been waiting for this at least since the appearance of SARS in 2003 when we saw the first coronavirus that caused a disruptive outbreak. Everyone was poised for coronavirus to be an infectious disease emergency. We sort of got that in 2012 with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, but it never really had a worldwide impact.

Another misconception is that people try to compare the novel coronavirus to influenza. There are some comparisons — they're both respiratory viruses and cause very similar symptoms. But the novel coronavirus is killing at a much higher rate than influenza, and no one in the population has any immunity to it. So even if the case fatality rate, on average, is 0.5%, the fact that it can infect everybody is what's driving the number of deaths in a way that influenza doesn’t.

Even during bad flu seasons, we don't see hospitals getting near crisis the way they recently did in places like New York City. This isn't just a benign respiratory virus, it has the ability to be very disruptive and kill some individuals that it infects.

What impact can research universities with reputations for innovative, interdisciplinary work like CMU have on the COVID-19 response?

Carnegie Mellon’s multidisciplinary nature, and the fact that you've got colleges that can meld their strengths together, can help us get through this pandemic. We’re going to need innovative solutions to move forward and to figure out how to do things safely. Carnegie Mellon’s technological expertise as well as its analytical ability, plus the fact that everybody cross-communicates, will be useful.

Carnegie Mellon is well-suited to help respond to this pandemic and future pandemics.