COVID-19: Scientific Advances and its Impact on Women’s Health Symposium
By Vanessa L. Muñoz, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Associate, W.M. Keck Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Molecular Microbiology, Washington University in St. Louis
The COVID-19: Scientific Advances and its Impact on Women’s Health Symposium co-organized by Washington University’s Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research, Department of Molecular Microbiology, Global Health Center and Women in Global Health-Midwest Chapter, brimmed with exceptional and highly lauded researchers and healthcare professionals, many of whom are considered leaders and innovators within their respective fields. The speakers discussed SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis and prevention, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global and public health. The online symposium featured a guest panel and three sessions highlighting local researchers as well as researchers from across the globe. The highly anticipated September 11th meeting was well attended with over 450 registrants participating either via Zoom or a Youtube Live stream.
Keynote speaker Susan Weiss, PhD, professor and vice chair, University of Pennsylvania, co-director of the Penn Center for Research on Coronaviruses and Other Emerging Pathogens, masterfully opened the symposium with a brief history of coronaviruses, an introduction to coronavirus viral replication and cell entry, and a presentation of the research her lab has performed over the last 20+ years on coronaviruses, including recent work on SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Weiss ended her presentation by promoting the 2021 “Impact of SARS-CoV-2 on women, minorities and other underserved communities” Symposium (exact date to be determined), which will be hosted by the Penn Center for Research on Coronavirus and Other Emerging Pathogens. Kanta Subbarao, MBBS, MPH, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, Doherty Institute, and Liise-anne Pirofski, MD, the Selma and Dr. Jacques Mitrani Chair in Biomedical Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, followed the keynote with excellent talks on the benefits of convalescent serum and plasma, respectively. Both speakers highlighted the importance of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein in antibody response, viral neutralization, and immunity against SARS-CoV-2 infection. Session One ended with the second keynote speaker, Ralph Baric, PhD, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Baric guided the audience through the rigorous process of performing SARS-CoV-2 reverse genetics, leveraging tractable mouse models to study SARS-COV-2 pathogenesis, and evaluating potential drugs and vaccine candidates.
Session Two of the symposium showcased the tremendous research and collaboration surrounding basic COVID-19 studies and vaccine efforts occurring at Washington University School of Medicine. The Molecular Microbiology Chair at Washington University, Sean Whelan, PhD, who recently relocated from Harvard University, commenced the session with incredible insights on using the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) in COVID-19 vaccine efforts by replacing the VSV envelope protein with the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to generate, as Dr. Whelan termed, “Faux-VID”; this hybrid virus was used in in vivo mouse studies to determine immunogenicity and protection against SARS-CoV-2 in collaboration with speaker, Michael Diamond, MD, PhD, Herbert S. Gasser Professor Departments of Medicine, Molecular Microbiology, Pathology & Immunology. Notably, Drs. Whelan and Diamond recently published an article in Cell Host & Microbe that vaccination with “Faux-VID” generated neutralizing immune responses and protected mice from SARS-CoV-2 infection. Sebla Kutluay, PhD assistant professor, Washington University, followed Dr. Whelan with a fascinating talk about SARS-CoV-2 cell tropism, receptor diversity, and innate host cell responses while including personal anecdotes on the adverse effects inflicting women and families due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Session Three commenced with an in-depth discussion on biological and social sex- and gender-based differences in the COVID-19 pandemic by Janine Clayton, MD, Associate Director for Research on Women’s Health and Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the NIH. Featuring an all-women speaker lineup, Session Three addressed the mental, financial, and social impacts on the pandemic. Abroad scientists, Haja Ramatulai Wurie, PhD, Dean, Faculty of Nursing, University of Sierra Leone, and Amina Jama Mahmud, PhD, founder, Women in Global Health-Somalia and Project Director, Save the Children International. discussed the implications of COVID-19 on women and female health workers emphasizing the impacts on women in marginalized communities and the detriment of “gender-blind” policies, respectively. Health policy researcher and cardiologist Karen Joynt Maddox, MD, MPH, assistant professor and co-director, Center for Health Economics and Policy, Institute for Public Health at Washington University, provided the audience with a perspective on racial inequities, noting that Black and African American communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID. Dr. Joynt Maddox pointed to structural racism and discriminatory policies being at the root of these inequitable issues. Sonia Deal, RN, MSN assistant vice president of Clinical Integration, Affinia Healthcare, furthered the discussion on the challenges in disadvantaged communities served by Affinia Healthcare and presented community data on the COVID pandemic in St. Louis. The session ended with an informative keynote by Rosemary Morgan, PhD, assistant scientist, Johns Hopkins University, on how to minimize gendered impacts of COVID by preparing a gender responsive pandemic plan. Dr. Morgan discussed the differences in how COVID-19 affected men, women, and gender minorities, and advocated for the inclusion of intersectional needs when creating a gender responsive pandemic plan.
The final segment of the symposium, adeptly titled “Preparing for the Next Pandemic”, was moderated by Carolina Lopez, PhD, professor and BJC Investigator at Washington University and Caline Mattar, MD, assistant professor, Washington University, and featured esteemed panelists: Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor, Yale University, Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, chair, Johns Hopkins University, and George Kyei, MBChB, PhD, assistant professor, Washington University, University of Ghana. In a round-table discussion, panelists spoke on various topics, including differences in COVID-19 outcomes based on sex, policy differences in US compared to countries abroad, specifically Ghana, and the importance of women in leadership positions.
Despite the online format, the Q&A forum was quite vibrant, allowing the symposium to remain on schedule while providing a platform for attendees to continue scientific discussions with the invited speakers. Furthermore, conversations extended beyond the Zoom interface onto social media with lively commentary occurring through use of the Twitter hashtag #ScienceStopsCOVID. As the symposium came to a close, I greatly mirrored Washington University School of Medicine Dean, David Perlmutter’s welcoming sentiment, which lauded the scientific community’s labor of effort and love — scientists across the globe quickly responded to the call of action and extraordinary strides have been made to further COVID-19 research and address women’s health discrepancies. Many thanks to the organizing committee for composing an engaging one-day meeting that spotlighted internationally recognized speakers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 and Women’s Health symposium was a truly impactful experience highlighting the advancements and breakthroughs in COVID-19 basic science, translational medicine, diagnostics, and public health initiatives.