April 23, 2020 – Christopher Broder, Ph.D. ’89, has devoted his career to studying emerging zoonotic viruses, which are transmitted from animals to humans. Like many in his field, the professor and chair of microbiology and immunology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, has shifted focus onto the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the disease COVID-19.
In recent years, much of Broder’s work has centered around virus surveillance, in which partnerships are established with public health and wildlife management entities in other nations such as Malaysia, India and Thailand to use non-invasive, non-lethal means to gather blood samples and data from animals like bats and livestock. Then Broder and his team use those samples to screen against dozens of zoonotic viruses. Currently, he is working to develop a test that will detect antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 as well as nine other coronaviruses, four of which cause the common cold. Antibody tests can determine if a person has previously been infected with a virus and could indicate if they have immunity against future infections. Including other known SARS-like coronaviruses in the test will help researchers determine the extent of the presence of such viruses in other animal reservoirs.
“We want to know how many people got infected with SARS-CoV-2 but didn’t get COVID-19. A large sample size created by screening tens of thousands of people will help us understand what percentage of people who get infected don’t get the disease. In those cases, they can still shed the virus. That may be one of the reasons this virus was able to spread,” Broder says. “This research is going to answer questions like, how important is asymptomatic virus shedding? Other researchers are focused on learning about the difference in immune responses among such groups of infected people, and this is going to be very helpful to get a better understanding of the host response as it relates to disease outcome.”
Broder, inducted into the UF College of Medicine Wall of Fame in 2019, finds a silver lining in the current global pandemic, noting that the current event is one that his community of virology researchers has predicted for nearly two decades. Now, with the rapid spread of COVID-19 across several continents, Broder feels more confident that research will create effective vaccines and antibody tests that will lessen the spread and impact of future coronavirus outbreaks.
“This is the second time we’ve seen a coronavirus causing a serious disease outbreak in less than 20 years, starting with SARS in 2003 and now the global pandemic with SARS-CoV-2. This unfolding outbreak is so well recognized by every country in the world that more serious preparedness will come from this, I hope. We won’t forget about this for some time,” he says. “This will allow countries, and the public as a whole, to really get behind vaccine and antiviral developments and public health preparedness measures, because this will happen again.”