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Emerging Diseases: A COLL 150 seminar tracks the COVID-19 outbreak in real time

  • Portrait photograph of Beverly Sher
    Watching the outbreak emerge:  Beverly Sher is a faculty member in William & Mary’s Department of Chemistry. She has been teaching a freshman course called Emerging Diseases since 1996. This semester, her students got to follow the emergence of COVID-19 in real time.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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It was the first day of class, and Beverly Sher had a question for the William & Mary freshmen enrolled in her Emerging Diseases class.

“I asked, ‘Have you guys been reading about this coronavirus?’” she recalled. “They all looked at me blankly.”

That was late January, and the novel coronavirus now named SARS-CoV-2 was just beginning to thrust its crown-shaped head into the public perception. On the second day of class, some of the students reported what they found about the troubling pathogen that was causing concern in Wuhan, China.

“Then they started bringing in articles,” Sher said. “They’re on top of it now.”

SARS-CoV-2 is the agent behind the outbreak of the disease known at COVID-19. Sher has been teaching Emerging Diseases at William & Mary since 1996. It’s a COLL 150 course, part of the university’s curriculum for first-year students. Like all COLL 150s, Emerging Diseases is taught in a seminar format that emphasizes research and writing.

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Emerging Diseases is a particularly popular choice in the slate of COLL 150 courses; Sher attributes the popularity of her seminar to the high number of William & Mary students aiming to go on to medical school. Sher is a senior lecturer in the university’s Department of Chemistry and also serves as the health professions advisor to William & Mary’s undergraduate students.

The students in Emerging Diseases, like all freshmen at William & Mary, are too early in their studies to declare a major, but she says, “Twelve of the 16 students in this class self-identify as pre-med.”

Those 16 students were in the right course at the right time to trace developments surrounding the novel coronavirus from late January, when the World Health Organization declared the pathogen to be a public health emergency of international concern. There’s been a lot to keep track of.

“We have something happening in the world that is unprecedented. At least according to Tom Frieden,” Sher said. “He said, ‘Never before has a new pathogen emerged and caused a global spread like this.’ And James Lawler, a public health expert from the University of Nebraska, has said the U.S. should be prepared to cope with case numbers that could be up to 10 times as high as in a typical flu season.”

A significant portion of Emerging Diseases has always been keeping up with the latest developments. Sher encourages her students to eschew the dubious world of social media in favor of more reliable media outlets and people like Frieden, an infectious-disease physician who also is the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The problem with the coronavirus news right now is that there is so much of it,” she said.

Sher reminds them to be wary of websites bearing unsourced material. She added that that her students are pretty capable of winnowing out nonsense and material that seems to carry a suspicious agenda. And she points them to electronic sources that she has found to be valuable. For instance, she recommends the website of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, among others.

“CDC.gov is pretty darn trustworthy,” Sher said. “And I’ve been recommending certain sources of information on the coronavirus specifically. Johns Hopkins has a really great dashboard, for example. And there's a once-a-day newsletter that comes from there.”

Students in the Emerging Diseases course incorporate relevant primary sources into their research routine. Sher said that every student presents on a scientific paper during the class.

“One of the great things about some of the sources I've been using is that they link you to the scientific publications,” she said. “And, you know, sometimes the news doesn't quite get it right, but if you can look at the paper and see what the paper actually said, you have a better understanding of what the news story should have said.”

Social media and dodgy websites are not the only sources of misinformation, of course. There is also the campus grapevine, and Sher says her students have brought to class unfounded rumors. The university posts the latest word on the situation on a dedicated COVID-19 webpage.

Most years, the class studies historical outbreaks such as the 1918 flu, Ebola and AIDS, but COVID-19 isn’t the first infectious disease that Emerging Diseases students have watched emerge.

“My students knew about SARS before most people, because they were reading ProMED,” Sher said. “It’s a moderated listserv; the moderators only put up things that they think are high quality. We read this little item about weird things happening in southern China.”

The weird reports included rumors of doctors and nurses dying. There was a run on traditional remedies. It seems there was some sort of infection brewing.

“And within a day, WHO announced that China had told them they had a problem,” she said. “So my students were seeing it at the very beginning.”

Sher got wind of reports of what became COVID-19 in much the same way: vetted, reliably sourced reports via ProMED. She began following the outbreak in December or early January and so was able to bring the new Emerging Diseases class up to speed as the spring semester began.

“The great thing about all of the electronic resources we have available is that students can look over the shoulders of the experts and see what they're saying and see it pretty much in real time,” she said.

As news about the novel coronavirus advances and COVID-19 itself shows up in more and more tests, Sher has some advice for the general public: Pay attention.

Each section of Emerging Diseases includes study of what Sher calls “my favorite graph in the whole world.” It shows the progressive decline in deaths from infectious diseases over the 20th century — except for a spike representing the 1918 flu, which was responsible for millions of deaths worldwide.

“The 1918 flu is why we’re afraid of flu,” she said. “And if we’re comparing this new thing to the 1918 flu — boy, it’s time to pay attention.”

Sher recommends people pay attention to announcements and recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health. Everyone should keep up with reports from the Centers for Disease Control. She added that the CDC has an excellent set of preparation guides for emergencies ranging from natural disasters to pandemics.

“At one point, they even had preparations for the zombie apocalypse,” she said. “I’m not kidding.”

Most of the CDC-recommended precautions will be familiar for anyone facing an eventuality that might require them to stay home for a while.

“Make sure that you have your medications, and try to have as much medication as your insurance company will let you get. And they talk about a supply of food for two weeks, basically, being able to be on your own for a while,” she said. “And, you know, I've lived through enough hurricanes in Williamsburg to know this is a really good list of things to have.”