COVID-19 provided UO disease course a teaching moment

During her winter quarter course Tropical Diseases in Africa, which includes an overview of emerging infectious diseases and pandemics, University of Oregon scientist Janis Weeks knew she had a real-time example in play.

A novel coronavirus was spreading around the world. On Feb. 11, the World Health Organization labeled the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 – in short, SARS-CoV-2 – as the cause of an illness now known as COVID-19. On March 12, a pandemic was declared.

“COVID-19 was perfect timing, from a teaching perspective,” said Weeks, a professor emerita with affiliations in the Department of Biology, Institute of Neuroscience and African Studies Program.

Her course focuses on the biological and medical aspects of major infectious and parasitic diseases in Africa and socioeconomic issues in public health and case studies. A portion of the course is devoted to emerging infectious diseases, which often appear rapidly and mysteriously in a population or geographic region.

“I cover previous and current outbreaks such as the yellow fever, Ebola and Hendra viruses. I don’t focus on coronaviruses specifically,” she said. “However, we looked at the COVID-19 crisis as a possible candidate for what the World Health Organization uses as a placeholder in its list of pathogens with greatest pandemic potential: Disease X. We discuss how SARS-CoV-2 might represent a Disease X, the next big one that seemingly came out of nowhere.”

Weeks has been involved in research and education in Africa since the mid 1990s. She studies parasitic diseases, or those transmitted to humans, plants and animals by parasites. She’s also involved in the development of a new drug-screening technology that may lead to new pharmaceuticals against nematode infections.

In 2011, Weeks and UO colleague Shawn Lockery founded a UO spinoff, NemaMetrix Inc., to enhance the commercialization of such devices. NemaMetrix’s portfolio has grown since then to include a range of human diseases, especially those with a genetic cause.

Parasitic diseases, Weeks said, don’t have a history of outbreaks and pandemics like those driven by viruses.

“Viruses mutate quickly and can recombine rapidly to make new pathogens,” Weeks said. “This threat makes the field of emerging infectious disease more heavily focused on viruses. And emerging infectious diseases are essentially all zoonotic. They are pathogens that jumped from animals to humans, like HIV, Ebola and Zika.”

Emerging infectious diseases, Weeks said, are increasing in frequency because of anthropogenic factors such as habitat destruction, climate change and globalization. Because of that, she said, new diseases like COVID-19 are to be expected.

“It’s a matter of when, not if, outbreaks of novel pathogens will erupt. The surprise is simply in which particular viral variant it will be,” she said. “It's an absolutely riveting, while terrifying, topic. I show the film ‘Contagion’ in my class and use excerpts from the book ‘Spillover’ by David Quammen, a great resource. I'm now rereading ‘World War Z,’ which, although about zombies, is an amazingly realistic depiction of how pandemics can play out.”

Being prepared for pandemics, no matter their cause, is crucial, Weeks said.

“It’s critical to plan for them through basic research on viruses and human immunity and sociological research into human factors in disease transmission,” she said. “We also need to look at infrastructure such as stockpiling medical supplies to be ready for a rapid response. It’s also important to maintain strong, bilateral relationships with other nations since pandemics are by definition global.”

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications