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Virus specialist raised in Salmon Arm recommends more COVID rapid testing

Michael Worobey says vaccines ‘incredibly safe,’ still effective against delta variant
Salmon Arm Secondary graduate Michael Worobey, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, provides information on the coronavirus and vaccine. (Contributed)

A former resident of Salmon Arm who is a world-renowned expert on the origin and emergence of viral pandemics says the very contagious delta variant of the coronavirus comes with a silver lining of sorts.

Michael Worobey, who grew up in Salmon Arm and graduated from Salmon Arm Secondary, is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He has done ground-breaking work on HIV/AIDS and influenza, including the 1918 influenza pandemic, and has published multiple papers in top scientific journals in the world about the origin and spread of SARS CoV2 – the virus that causes the coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

He confirmed the delta variant is very good at spreading between people, but in terms of how it looks to our immune system, it’s very similar to early variants.

While it’s a bad thing it’s so transmissible, he said, “the interesting silver lining of that is it out-competed some other variants that were actually more of a challenge to the vaccine. Right now, we’re in a pretty good place in terms of the vaccine targeting delta.”

Worobey said people will see updates to the vaccine, and future boosters or updates will be based on delta rather than earlier variants.

Asked about safety of the vaccines, he replied: “The vaccines are incredibly safe and much, much safer than allowing yourself to get infected from the virus… Most of the side effects are extremely mild; you may feel like crap for a day or two but that’s a small price to pay for immunity.”

While a very small percentage of people have had mild carditis – inflammation in the heart, he said the number of people who get it after the vaccine, is dwarfed by the numbers who get that kind of complication, and much worse, if they get the disease without being vaccinated.

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Worobey said the vaccines are by no means experimental. They have been tested and fully approved in both the U.S. and Canada and now all over the world.

“It’s just like any other vaccine we take like measles and chicken pox and so forth.”

He said the mRNA type of vaccine was maturing when the pandemic started and so nothing was rushed.

“It was already in place, the technology was developed for how to deliver this kind of genetic instruction, and so the groundwork has been laid over the past 20 years for this.”

He explained how they work.

“Rather than just giving a protein that your immune system recognizes as unusual and creates antibodies against, this gives the instructions on how to make the protein in the form of messenger RNA, it’s called, and our cells take those instructions up and make the antigen, the protein, themselves.”

Asked about having a third shot, he said it may help block infection, “but the vaccines even without a booster are very, very good at protecting against landing in the hospital or dying…”

He said three-week or one-month delays between shots may not have been optimal because it appears that having a longer delay between immunizations ramps up the immune system.

“Some people have suggested it may be best to think about the third shot as not exactly a booster shot, but maybe what we should have done from the beginning in terms of doing three shots as the standard.”

Asked what he foresees for the future, Worobey said: “This virus is going to stick with us and it’s gonna be something like flu that we just contend with year after year.”

However, he said once everyone has either had the virus through natural infection or has been vaccinated, or both, it will settle into something that is much less scary and disruptive than it has been and still is.

“We’re still in that transitional phase where not everyone has had exposure to the virus or the vaccine yet. But it’s going to be something that kills in North America, I would bet, more than 100,000 people a year.”

He said it’s becoming clear that the virus is not something that happens and then it’s behind you. He said he just read a study about an increase of up to 4,000 per cent in some cardiovascular problems during the year after contracting the virus.

“So the vaccines are so much safer than the virus and you are going to get this virus if you don’t get vaccinated,” he predicted.

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Worobey would like to see people work together to end the disruptive stage of the pandemic now underway. One important step would be much easier access to rapid tests that people can do at home, he said.

“We should be in a world where everyone has essentially an unlimited supply of those and can test themselves every day.”

Then people could spend time isolating if infected and not be infecting others.

“Because there still are people who either can’t take the vaccine because they have some sort of immunological problem or some other reason and people who if they’ve had the vaccine are still at quite high risk of a bad outcome,” he said, pointing to the very elderly, for instance.

“It’s way, way less dangerous now with a vaccine than without a vaccine, but there are still avoidable risks that if everyone in society was pulling their weight as much as they can to do these tests on a daily basis, we could really knock this down to almost nothing.”

Worobey is currently focusing his research on working out when and how the virus emerged in Wuhan, China, with an eye to preventing future outbreaks like the one the world is experiencing.

Asked if, with all his research into viruses, the rise of skepticism is a new phenomenon, he said, no, it’s not new. But he is surprised how much traction it’s getting.

“It’s very concerning that there’s just generally a lot of mistrust in science and a tremendous amount of misinformation and disinformation where people are just spreading a lot of dangerous lies and errors about the risks of these vaccines. And so it’s a concern because I think it’s going to actually affect how we are able to vaccinate our kids against stuff that virtually everyone in society has had no problem with up until this time point.

“So it’s not only an issue for this new virus, it seems to have gathered so much steam that it’s going to take down vaccination efforts to other stuff that we’ve had good success with in the past. It’s extremely disappointing and unfortunate. It’s going to cost a lot of lives.”
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Martha Wickett

About the Author: Martha Wickett

came to Salmon Arm in May of 2004 to work at the Observer. I was looking for a change from the hustle and bustle of the Lower Mainland, where I had spent more than a decade working in community newspapers.
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