Life Of A Coronavirus Scientist During A Pandemic

9:50 minutes

a male scientist in a hazmat suit to study coronaviruses in a biosafety lab
Matthew Frieman geared up in the lab. Credit: © University of Maryland School of Medicine

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

Unfortunately, we’ve arrived at a grim pandemic milestone: One full year of a global health crisis. The first COVID-19 cases were reported in December 2019 by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. 

Last spring, we talked with three coronavirus researchers—Matthew Frieman, Andrea Pruijssers, and Lisa Gralinski—who discussed what the pandemic was like for them, including working in a BSL3 biosafety lab, and how their lives, and research, had been impacted.

Ira checks back in with one of them, Matthew Frieman, to reflect on his experience in the last year, and what he expects for the coming year. 

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Segment Guests

Matthew Frieman

Matthew Frieman is an associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Andrea Pruijssers

Andrea Pruijssers is a research assistant professor of Pediatric Infectious Disease at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Lisa Gralinski

Lisa Gralinski is an assistant professor of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: As we enter the second year of the COVID pandemic, our first conversation on this program about the coronavirus happened this week, one year ago. And during those early days, we checked in with coronavirus researchers in three different labs, scientists who had been studying coronaviruses for years. We wanted to know what the pandemic was like for them working in a biosafety lab and how their lives and research had been impacted. Here are interviews we recorded eight months ago in May 2020.

MATTHEW FREEMAN: I mean, it really started December 30th when this first announcement of this pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan.

LISA GRALINSKI: At that point, it was more kind of an excitement, because we didn’t realize how bad it would be. And then by late January, I think it was clear to us that there was a big problem.

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: We first got this virus, SARS-CoV-2, the first week of February. So February, March, April, May– it’s been almost four months of basically nonstop, really, really hard work. But it’s really a marathon, but if you start a marathon sprinting, you don’t last. So I don’t know– I don’t know how I’m still alive. [LAUGHS] But I am.

LISA GRALINSKI: Afternoon, evening is my BL3 lab time. Well, lately, I’m leaving there between like 9:00 to 9:30 usually, sending the occasional message to my husband promising, like, yeah, I’ll be home before bedtime, and he writes back, yeah, we’ll see.

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: I’ve spent most of my day in the lab. It’s really important, obviously, to be careful, to not bring that out of the facility, but now it’s everywhere. You can pick it up in a grocery store, on the playground. You can get it anywhere. So now I feel most safe within the BSL3, because it’s the only place where I’m truly protected against it, because I’m in my bubble. [LAUGHS] I got my own airflow, my HEPA filter, so it’s kind of the place where I prefer to be right now.

MATTHEW FREEMAN: It’s remarkably watching this virus move around the world when it’s the virus that you work on. It’s really weird.

LISA GRALINSKI: And we all have to have conversations about, like, if someone in our lab does become infected, how do we demonstrate that it wasn’t from the lab? In a way, our lab is lucky, because we were a coronavirus-pathogenesis lab beforehand. I already had to take my temperature every single day. I already had to be concerned about upper- and lower-respiratory symptoms. So anyone who is trying to rapidly adapt, those people I feel really bad for.

MATTHEW FREEMAN: You know, people ask, why don’t we have a drug or an antibody for this thing yet? And the reason is because only one lab has really been funded to do coronavirus research on a large scale in the past 10 years. All of this is stuff that we’ve been trying to get people to pay attention to for a while. I think the funny part of this story for me is that, as of the end of last year, I didn’t have enough money for the lab to continue through 2020. That has changed, and we are now well-funded and will be keeping this going for the rest of my career, I hope.

LISA GRALINSKI: People have been incredibly supportive. It was really bizarre when I got my first couple of messages coming in through Facebook or something. You know, thanks for what you’re doing. Like, I’m not in the military. This is something I’ve never thought of.

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: We have another drug that is now entering Phase II clinical trials, and it’s just been picked up by Merck. I tested that on SARS-CoV-2 and sent those data on, and it’s just– it’s me preparing, [LAUGHS] making a graph, sending it off, and then seeing it in a newspaper. I mean, it’s kind of like a dream for a researcher to be able to work at this level with this type of importance.

IRA FLATOW: That was from conversations back in May with Matthew Freeman, Lisa Gralinski, and Andrea Pruijssers. And now eight months later, Dr. Freeman is here to join us to talk about reflections about that experience and give us an update. He’s an Associate Professor in Microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Welcome back.

MATTHEW FREEMAN: Thank you for having me again.

IRA FLATOW: Listening to those clips of yourself eight months ago, what’s the difference between where you were then and compared to today?

MATTHEW FREEMAN: Well, I thought I was very tired at that moment eight months ago. I didn’t realize how much more tired I could possibly get, but I think that what it reflects is that this– obviously, we all are going through this remarkable pandemic over the last year. At the time, eight months ago, we knew that was– this was going to spread. This was going to be a very big deal around the world. I certainly don’t– I don’t think anyone could have predicted the numbers of cases that we are seeing right now. It’s still in the midst of it.

IRA FLATOW: Like you say, the virus you work on is now out in the real world, and there are still record numbers of cases and deaths. How does it feel for you to be a coronavirus researcher right now?

MATTHEW FREEMAN: I think it feels, for all of us, that we– we have a very important role in this, especially all of the labs that have worked on coronaviruses previously. The driving force in my lab over the last year has been working with companies and developing therapeutics that they either developed or we’re working with them on and get them into the people and the community as fast as possible. And so we have a– we have a remarkable role to play because of our expertise in this field. It certainly is exhausting and tiring. I’m really a basic scientist at heart. I never thought I would do anything that would affect any human, really, directly from the lab. So to be able to play a part in this is really quite rewarding and really drives the research.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. The speed that scientists have had to work has been astonishing, right? I mean, in the clip, one of the researchers described approaching the work like a marathon rather than a sprint. Do you agree that this is a marathon? How do you create a balance between the two?

MATTHEW FREEMAN: There is absolutely no balance, unfortunately. At the beginning of this, we certainly– we were all calling it– it’s a marathon at sprint pace, and that hasn’t slowed down. Our lab and everyone else’s lab in this field that are working on this virus are working at an amazing pace to try to understand the virus better, develop therapeutics, get clinical trials run, and then out into the population so we can get approvals. It just hasn’t slowed down. I don’t know when it will, but in our lab, it certainly has not.

IRA FLATOW: How are you viewing the second year of the pandemic?

MATTHEW FREEMAN: I think I look at it two ways. I’m quite optimistic about all of the vaccine that has been really rapidly developed through all of these companies. We’re working with Novavax on their vaccine directly. Seeing that out in trials and the two vaccines that have EUA approval already, in a year, that is incredibly remarkable. I know we keep saying that, and I don’t think the general public really realizes what a scientific endeavor it has been to really develop these fast and safely.

The other aspect of it, though, is the cases are not slowing down, and so the scary thing and the kind of, I guess, sad thing to me, really, is that we’re not protecting ourselves the way we know how to protect– of social distancing, wearing masks. And so seeing the case numbers increase, it’s really disheartening to watch this move not just in the United States but around the world, people not doing the things that we know can protect them and getting really just tired of it, which I totally understand. But the case numbers are certainly not slowing down, and it really– it saddens me that we aren’t getting better at this yet.

IRA FLATOW: You talk about being saddened by this. Do you take your work home with you? I mean, does it affect you when you leave the lab?

MATTHEW FREEMAN: Sure. I don’t think I’m depressed at home. I certainly am working more now in the last 12 months than I have ever before, staying up late. I miss some kid bedtimes and dinners. But I have an 11-year-old and an eight-year-old and a wife who is also a physician scientist at Johns Hopkins. So all of this impacts all of our lives, whether it’s somebody working in a lab or it’s a single mom at home trying to put her kid through virtual school while they work a job. It’s– everyone is finding their way through this, and I think that we all have a role to play, whether it’s in a lab or, you know, otherwise.

IRA FLATOW: What do you want us to know about your work and COVID researchers in general?

MATTHEW FREEMAN: What I want everyone to know is that, again, everyone plays a role in this, that we can work as hard as we can in the lab to develop vaccines and antibodies and drugs, but if everyone out there is not helping themselves by distancing, wearing masks, doing the real things that we know are interventions that are non-pharmaceutical interventions that really reduce the risk of being infected, that is where everyone can play a role in this. I also want everyone to know that the vaccines that are rolling out now have gone through trials very rapidly, and I know there’s some concern in the community that, no, that’s not normal and maybe they aren’t safe. That certainly is not the fact– not a fact in any of the things that we have seen both published and unpublished, where all of the rigors of normal scientific research and clinical trials are still there in these experiments and in these– in Phase I, II, and III trials.

So I want everyone to understand that these vaccines are safe, and that the therapeutics are safe, and combining those therapeutics with protecting yourself by following all of the normal public-health measures are really how we can get ourselves through this.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much, Matthew, for taking time to be with us today.

MATTHEW FREEMAN: Thank you very much for having me, and good luck, and stay safe.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’ll check in with you along the way. Is that OK?

MATTHEW FREEMAN: Absolutely. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Matthew Freeman is an Associate Professor in Microbiology and Immunology, University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

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