Viruses affecting health and research now and in the near future

Emerging and known viral infections continue to pose a major threat to global public health. This is especially evident during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic time, which was declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Acute risk of ongoing pandemics makes us to neglect other viruses that are out there and continue to impact humankind like HIV, Zika, Ebola, just to name a few.

One also turns to forget that there is much more to the viruses but only being a cause of disease. They are used for drug or gene delivery, such as DNA or RNA, to the cells and organisms.

One shall also bear in mind, that there are multiple approaches to understand viruses and their impact: medical, epidemiological, research driven, societal, economical, evolutional, historical and so on.

Having all this in mind, we aim to discuss viruses and their impact in a broader perspective during the upcoming Kontinkangas Campus Science Day entitled Viruses affecting health and research, taking place on February 23rd .

Herein, we have invited scientists from University of Oulu to share their views on how do they see the viruses affecting health and research in the field of their expertise now and in the near future?

Viruses are an integral part of the evolution of all life forms

Professor Aki Manninen, Director of Disease Networks Research Unit, Faculty of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, University of Oulu

We generally consider viruses as opportunistic pathogens causing pandemic threats for human population and our society. However, viruses are an integral part of the evolution of all life forms on the earth. This includes not only the virus-host arms race but also “symbiotic” viruses that have been integrated into the host genome where they likely perform important function that is not thoroughly understood. One such example is the link between viruses and cancer. While many viral infections can lead to elevated risk for tumorigenic growth, there is also evidence that some endogenous viruses might be activated in certain cancer types and act as alarm waking up the immune defense to attack the developing tumor. Many open and interesting questions remain to be answered. Given the development of genome-wide analyses and genome engineering technologies I foresee that the roles of these “good” viruses within us will start to unravel in the near future.

We need to learn more about humans as social and cultural beings, in order to effectively control pandemic

Docent Heini Hakosalo, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, History of Sciences and Ideas, University of Oulu

The history of medicine and health has two foci. The first studies what medical science has done to understand diseases and what doctors have done to prevent and treat them. The second deals with the changing manifestations of health and disease, and the impact of diseases on societies. Viral diseases have always had a place on the agenda of the specialty, but you don't need a crystal ball to predict that they will receive more attention in near future. We'll see a renewed historical interest both in the efforts of the scientific community to come to grips with viruses and in the ways that viral diseases, especially those with epidemic proportions, have shaped modern societies. I expect to see not only firmly focused studies on specific individual issues related to viral history but also integrative studies that tackle the complex interaction between pathogens, human societies and the environment. For one big lesson taught by COVID-19 is that, in order to effectively control a pandemic, one needs to understand not only the pathogen but also a much more complex and less predictable organism: the human as a social and cultural being.

More work is needed to understand virus and combat this pandemic

Associate Professor Zhi Jane Chen, Faculty of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, University of Oulu

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is apparent this disease has already changed our life. Actually, we now live in a very different world where SARS-CoV-2 has redefined how we experience essential elements of modern life ranging from work and education to travel and recreation.

Immunity lies at the heart of many of the COVID-19 pandemic’s biggest questions. Why do some people become extremely ill and others don’t? The immune system is a complex organization of cells and molecules acting together to protect from harmful infectious agents, aid recovery from injury and eliminate abnormal or cancerous cells. If the immune system overreacts and is poorly regulated, inflammatory disease may occur. Conversely, if it doesn’t react enough, and in the right way, it fails to protect us against a multitude of infections.

Thanks for the exceptional tremendous efforts by scientific community to develop vaccines against the virus. The most promising fact is that since last December (2020), vaccinations have started world-wide including Finland. This will reduce spreading of COVID-19. However, recent reported new variant of the virus brings new challenges. So far very little is known about the immune responses of the new variants. Whether people who have had COVID-19 are susceptible to infection again with the new variant. There is no data yet available to demonstrate the protective effect of already developed vaccine to new variants. More work is still needed to resolve all of these questions that may help us to live in a satisfactory way to combat with this pandemic. Healthcare professionals and hospitals have once again ramped up capabilities to care for large number of people made seriously ill by COVID-19.

Comparative and long-term studies allow to see changes and interplay of viruses and societies

Docent Markku Hokkanen, PhD, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Oulu

In historical research on medicine, disease and health, viruses, pandemics and epidemics will doubtlessly attract increasing attention. Historians will place viruses in wider social, political, cultural, intellectual, economic, and ecological contexts, and make relations between humans and viruses understandable in place and time. Comparative and long-term studies are among the strengths of historical research, allowing us to see changes and continuities in interplay of viruses and societies. Historians will also work in inter- and multidisciplinary teams which aim to understand, explain, prevent, and prepare for viral epidemics locally and globally. Mobilities of viruses, people, ideas, practices and materials, from face masks to oxygen and vaccines, will surely be among many fascinating topics of global histories of medicine, disease and health in the era of COVID-19.

Interviews by:

Renata Prunskaite-Hyyryläinen, PhD, University of Oulu

Kaija Autio, PhD, University of Oulu