coronavirus pandemic virus infectious disease covid-19

The Pandemic That Changed The World: Many Questions and a Few Answers

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of questions about the virus, how it spreads, and its global impacts. A panel of biologists provides answers to some frequently asked questions.

I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” [1]

The novel coronavirus has plunged our daily lives into turmoil while simultaneously bringing the world to a standstill. In a few short months the world has become a drastically different place for billions of people. There are questions raised every minute and unforeseen problems cropping up like weeds, the answers to which could save lives. What are coronaviruses? Is a virus alive? Where do coronaviruses come from? How does the COVID-19 virus spread? When and, just as importantly, how will the pandemic end? But as we are slowly realizing, answers and solutions are never easy.

Life Science Café, a monthly avenue for sharing the science that happens at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass) with the local community, organized a webinar to help answer some frequently asked questions. Questions were solicited in advance and posed to a panel consisting of UMass faculty members Drs. Linda Tropp (Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences & School of Public Policy), Matthew Moore (Department of Food Science), and Andrew Lover (School of Public Health and Health Sciences). Linda, a social psychologist, studies how times of uncertainty lead to biases and prejudices in society and the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matthew’s research focuses on the pathogenesis (origin and progression), detection, and control of viruses, and has historically focused on food and environmental transmission. Andrew, an infectious disease epidemiologist, is actively involved in COVID-19 response at the local and state levels.


Figure 1 The novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 graphic released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

How is COVID-19 different from other viruses? How accurate is testing at this time? How is it transmitted? What preventative measures can we take against the novel coronavirus? How do antibody tests, vaccines, and herd immunity work? Is there anything that can speed up recovery from COVID? What are the best practices for grocery shopping during the pandemic? Can COVID-19 be transmitted during food processing? What are the risks when getting take-out food? What are the social impacts of the pandemic? What kind of societal effects will persist even when we return to some level of normalcy? What will happen now that several countries and U.S. states are opening back up? For answers to these questions and more, tune into the recording of the Life Science Café panel discussion.

Figure 2 Recording of the Life Science Café special COVID-19 panel answering FAQs on the novel coronavirus.

Some questions were answered outside of the discussion by the panelists through live chat. These live Q&A questions and responses from the Café have been edited for clarity.

When will it be safe to return to normalcy given the uncertainty with testing and exposure?

The antibody (a protein used by the immune system to protect against pathogens) tests being used everywhere will allow us to see exactly how many people have been infected, so we can calibrate how far away we are from ‘safety’. Large-scale serological (tests used to identify and measure antibodies in serums and bodily fluids such as blood) studies to find antibodies are underway nationally. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is enrolling ten thousand people while the UMass Sero-Mass study scheduled to begin shortly will enroll two thousand.

What precautions should we take for long distance road travel during the pandemic?

Minimize all stops, use disposable gloves for stops where necessary, and then follow your health care facility’s guidance as closely as possible.

What effect did the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic have on social institutions, and what lessons from that apply to COVID-19?

The book “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World” by Laura Spinney provides an overview of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic [2].

There has been discussion about the possibility that a booster dose of the Polio or TB vaccine could impart (partial) non-specific immunity to the population. Is that something worth pursuing?

There’s no good data yet; and we don’t expect this to be an important ‘silver bullet’ moving forward.

We hear there are two strains of COVID-19, and that the mutated one from Europe came to the East Coast whereas the other came directly from China to the West Coast. Are we at risk of getting infected from each strain?

That is something we do not completely know yet. It has been too short a time to know if protective immunity is acquired after infection, and how long it lasts. That said, it is suspected that we do gain some degree of immunity after infection, and if we have protective antibodies to one strain we would be protected from both based on their degree of genetic similarity. However, we have no data to say either way, so the best thing to do is to still be cautious.

Why, in times of crisis, is it so hard to think as a group like the social animals that we are rather than as separate individuals?

We often do think about ourselves as members of groups, but we’re not necessarily very ‘inclusive’ in terms of how we think about the boundaries for different groups. Under threat, we are especially likely to think of ourselves and others in terms of family or kinship ties, national or ethnic/racial/religious groups, and we tend not to be as generous toward people who extend beyond those group boundaries. But just because we’re not as inclined toward it, doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t happen - we are fully capable of becoming more generous toward groups and social units beyond our own.

Do you think the prevalence of social media has allowed/enhanced the increased generation of insular communities?

We have been shifting how we satisfy our need for social connection using online and social media sources. As human beings, we’re social animals, so if we are not engaging in person, we will likely find other ways to engage.

The primary motivation of the social distancing most of us are practicing is likely less selfishness (“I don’t want to get infected”) and more solidarity (“I don’t want to become a vector”). It’s probably early, but is anyone doing research on trying to disentangle our motivations in this new situation?

Yes, there are some research studies focusing on the many ways in which we are showing “solidarity” with others through social distancing, and other forms of social behavior such as donations, sewing masks, and delivering meals to those in need.

Related Reading:

Why Wash Your Hands? By Josh Foster

The Biology of Booze ft. Gin & Tonic by Kadambari Devarajan


  1. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.

  2. Spinney, Laura. Pale rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. PublicAffairs, 2017.

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