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About arbovirology, COVID-19, and beyond

By Dr Cindé Greyling

Prof Felicity Burt

Prof Felicity Burt says about the current
outbreak, “Although I always knew that
it was a possibility, I never imagined that
I would be part of a global pandemic
affecting our daily routine”.
Photo: Anja Aucamp

It is not over, says Prof Felicity Burt, expert in arbovirology in the Division of Virology and leader of the UFS COVID-19 Task Team. “SARS-CoV-2 will probably circulate annually, similar to other respiratory viruses.” She explains that novel viruses are continually emerging and a multidisciplinary approach towards understanding interactions at the wildlife-human interface will be essential for the prevention of future outbreaks.

Always on the horizon

Prof Burt has a joint appointment with the National Health Laboratory Service and the UFS. She also holds a South African Research Chair in Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens Research and is both nationally and internationally recognised as a researcher in the field of arboviruses. Arbovirology encompasses the study of viruses transmitted to humans by vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks.

“Although I always knew that it was a possibility,” she says about the current outbreak, “I never imagined that I would be part of a global pandemic affecting our daily routine.” The drive for vaccine development should deliver a vaccine that will protect people in the same way that influenza vaccines do. But that may not be the end of SARS-CoV-2. “The duration of immunity still needs to be determined, and it is possible that immunity will wane within a couple of years, increasing the potential for reinfection and the importance of an efficacious vaccine.”

Nature at its best

“There is irrefutable evidence for a natural origin and evolution of the virus,” Prof Burt debunks the conspiracy theories. But, she warns, human behaviour significantly contributes towards the emergence and spread of pathogens. Repurposing land for agriculture, whereby natural habitat is destroyed, enables closer and more frequent contact between humans and wildlife, creating opportunities for spill-over events to occur, she explains. “Similarly, illegal wildlife trade, live animal markets, and movement of livestock all contribute towards the spread of pathogens.”

Preparation is key

“Fear of the unknown causes panic and hysteria. We need to be concerned, rather than panicked,” Prof Burt says. Education and awareness are key to managing panic. Despite all the current pressure, Prof Burt would “absolutely not” want to have any other career. Her ideal research location remains South Africa and neighbouring countries to contribute towards determining the extent of the outbreak in asymptomatic individuals and the duration of protective immunity.

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