Dr. Chi-hua Chiu

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Name: Dr. Chi-hua Chiu

Title: Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences (College of Arts & Sciences)

What is your expertise? What are your research interests?

Evolutionary genetics, molecular evolution, evolution of gene regulation

How long have you worked at Kent State?

10 years.

When do you first remember hearing about COVID-19 or the "coronavirus?" Did you have any sense at all that it would have as large an impact as it has on our day-to-day life? 

I heard the WHO report about the COVID-19 outbreak in early January. China reported the first death due to SARS-CoV-2 on January 11. Coronaviruses have different animal reservoirs. Occasionally, the virus gains mutations that allow animal to human transmission. As January progressed more cases in different countries were reported, including the first case in the U.S. Infections of cruise ship passengers were also reported. It wasn't until February, however, that I became very concerned as reports supporting human to human transmission were coming out. The data seemed to suggest a high rate of infectivity, a long period of being asymptomatic, and a higher death rate than influenza viruses. Given there were already cases in the U.S. and several other countries in early February and evidence of human to human transmission, I was expecting this to be a pandemic. I assumed at the time that the U.S. would move much more quickly than they did to start testing for surveillance and containment so while I figured it would be a pandemic, I really didn't anticipate the lockdown of our country and the strain for resources that we are now experiencing.

Is there any experience you have had in your life up until now that compares with what we all are currently navigating? If so, what was it?

I am fortunate to teach a class called "Feasts and Plagues: the Science of Italian Wine, Food, and Disease" in Florence, Italy during the Florence Summer Institute, which is part of Kent State's Study Abroad program. In designing and teaching this course, I have become familiar with the societal, cultural, and biological impacts of the Black Death and other historical pandemics including the Spanish Flu. It is interesting to see the parallels of response and outcomes between the modern COVID-19 pandemic and these historical pandemics.

How has your day-to-day life changed? What does your new "routine" look like now?

Like all of my colleagues, I am teaching my biology courses in an online format. I am fortunate that I don't teach laboratory courses, as this is especially challenging for STEM subjects where hands-on learning is essential. In teaching my courses I interact with my students via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and via email. Luckily I had more than half of a semester to get to know my students in the classroom so engaging their interest is easier. My routine isn't that different as I spend time preparing course materials and doing other tasks that I normally do such as reviewing grant proposals for NSF. My husband and 10th grader are also working remotely so it is odd having everyone at home doing work. But we manage.

COVID-19 and our collective response is one of the most interdisciplinary phenomena many of us have seen/experienced. How would you describe how your discipline/research interests/expertise contributes a valuable perspective to our better understanding and responding to COVID-19? 

Scientists are sequencing the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak in different regions of the world. These valuable data are providing insights into the mutation rate of this virus, its relatedness to other coronaviruses (e.g. MERS), and the functionally important regions of this virus that will aid in vaccine development.

Vaccine development is always challenging due to ongoing and stochastic mutation. This is especially true of viruses that have high rates of infectivity. The biology and life history of coronaviruses, as well as the mechanisms by which they infect host cells, will make vaccine development challenging. In society we face these challenges for vaccine development with influenza and other viruses. The public is aware of these challenges but I think it's always a struggle for scientists to relay the factual information to the public. I think many people also think "a virus is a virus" and don't understand how different the coronavirus is from the influenza virus.

Another area of difficulty is antibody testing. This form of testing is critical for surveillance and the US (and likely most of the world) is really behind in this. In terms of science, it is difficult to make antibody tests that are specific and repeatable. Targeting functionally critical regions of the virus genome that have the most conservative rates of mutation is the most rational approach but since mutation is stochastic, it is possible new strains will not be detected by antibodies that work for the majority of strains. It's also not clear that people who have recovered from SARS-CoV-2 produce antibodies, or titers of antibody that can be detected. It also seems that many people are infected but are asymptomatic.

Finally, there can be people who just have natural immunity. Antibody testing that works can partition the population and give us much better information on the infection but due to the challenges above we have a long way to go. As an evolutionary geneticist, I am very much aware of the "fitness" of any pathogen. For viruses, there are two "fitness" components: 1) infectivity and 2) mortality. In general the higher the rate of infectivity the lower the rate of mortality. In many ways this SARS-CoV-2 virus is exceptionally "fit", which makes it challenging for scientists. I also know that virus-human interactions follow the typical pathogen-host "arms race". Neither host nor pathogen can "escape" the arms race. Without a vaccine, however, we the hosts are especially vulnerable but with continued exposure our immune systems will respond. It just takes time (evolutionary time) for this to occur. Many people with natural immunity likely represent genomes that historically have been challenged by other coronaviruses and are further along in the "arms race". Unfortunately, as stated above, ongoing and stochastic mutation maintains the arms race.

If you had to embark upon a scholarly project (e.g., research, a new course) right now related to COVID-19 and our collective response, what would that look like?

Humans are hosts to several different pathogens, including many types of viruses. Scientists have reported situations in which viruses can lay dormant in a host, sometimes for years and years. It would be interesting to find any commonalities in people who have had the strongest reaction to SARS-CoV-2 infection like prior viral infections. Perhaps the reaction is triggered by SARS-CoV-2 infection AND reactivation of dormant viruses. Another possibility is an overreaction of the immune system to infection by this virus based upon genome history. Finally epigenomic/epigenetic differences may account for differences in reaction to this virus.

What other discipline (even without any expertise or knowledge in that area) could you see helpfully complementing yours in pursuit of your new COVID-19 project?

Epidemiology and viral biology.

Do you have any last insights/thoughts regarding COVID-19 and what we are all experiencing?

Without being able to identify people with natural immunity or prior infection and recovery via antibody testing, it is very difficult to imagine getting large groups of people together. Without a vaccine to this virus it is hard to imagine how social distancing measures can be overcome.