Q&A: Biosecurity Research Institute director discusses COVID-19 infections, vaccinations in progress


Peter Loganbill, Collegian news editor: “Do you know what the progress on looking for a vaccine is at this point?”

Stephen Higgs, director of the Biosecurity Research Institute: “Tony Fauci, the head of NIAID, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases here in the States, has kind of predicted that there may not be a vaccine for 12 to 18 months. It’s not just developing the vaccine that takes a long time, it’s doing all the testing.

“I sort of scanned some of the literature recently and there’s at least five or six different companies and groups trying to develop vaccines. Everybody wants to be the first, but everybody needs to be the best. So, there are various vaccines in development at the moment. You’ve probably heard that some people have actually volunteered to be testing some of these vaccines. When a vaccine is developed, obviously, not only does it have to be effective at protecting people, but it obviously has to have a well-proven safety record.

“There are different stages of testing drugs and vaccines to ensure that they work and they’re safe to give to people. Some of these vaccines, which are being worked on at the moment, are at the early stages of testing, what we call phase one. That’s where you get a relatively small group, perhaps, of healthy people, and then you vaccinate them and give them the virus to see if they’re protected.”

Loganbill: “From what I’ve read, it has been around in animals for a long time, but it only recently started infecting humans. Is that the case, and how did it only recently start infecting humans?”

Higgs: “The truth is, we don’t know. So, almost 70 percent, something like that, of diseases are new. The vast majority of those are what we call zoonotic — they infect other animals, and then for some reason they start to infect people. Now the typical reason, maybe this is what’s happening with SARS-CoV-2, and SARS and MERS, is that susceptible people get in contact with the animals that are being infected.

“This has happened with viruses for hundreds of years: They make this step from animals to people by people getting in close contact with animals. They’re called zoonotic because they’re animals and people. Sometimes, mutations occur that can make the virus more infectious to people or more easily transmitted. Other times, it doesn’t need a lot of changes, it just needs that critical step where people go into a situation where they get exposed to it from the first time.”

Want to learn more about COVID-19 from Higgs and the BRI’s involvement in research? Check out the Collegian Kultivate podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

I'm Pete Loganbill and I'm the News Editor for the Collegian and host of the Collegian Kultivate podcast! I spent two years at Johnson County Community College, and I am now a senior in Public Relations at K-State. I believe constant communication leads to progress, no matter how difficult a comment may be for me or anyone to hear. Contact me at ploganbill@kstatecollegian.com.