A coronavirus Q&A with immunologist Sarah Fortune

Numerous topics about COVID-19—such as how COVID-19 deaths compare to influenza deaths, or how likely it is to get COVID-19 from airborne transmission—were discussed in a May 1, 2020 C-SPAN interview featuring Sarah Fortune, John LaPorte Given Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Here’s some of what Fortune had to say:

How do COVID-19 deaths compare with deaths from influenza?

In the 2018-19 flu season … there were about 60,000 deaths. … In the United States, our 60,000 COVID deaths have occurred basically in the past six weeks, eight weeks. Whereas those influenza deaths occurred over a period of about 12 months. If this keeps up, we are on a pace to rapidly outstrip influenza. So I think while it is easy to equate these numbers, I don’t think that the comparison is fair.

How likely is it to contract COVID-19 through airborne transmission?

There is a distinction between droplet-borne transmission and airborne transmission. Droplet transmission is when you sneeze and cough and little spit droplets fly out, and they are kind of big. If people are in the trajectory, they can get infected, or they land on surfaces and get infected. With airborne transmission, the droplets dehydrate into these little tiny droplets that can then hang in the air for hours and hours and float around. And then anybody who happens to come into that little dust cloud, even a much longer time later, can be infected. That obviously is much harder to protect yourself against. … I think the epidemiologic and biologic data [about COVID-19] suggests airborne transmission is probably possible but it is not the dominant way this virus spreads. So most of the spread is through droplets and surfaces. Because that’s where most of the risk is, that’s really where we should focus most of our efforts.

If someone has antibodies to COVID-19 does that mean they will not get the disease again?

Technically we do not know. That is really because all antibodies are not equal. When you talk about antibodies, numbers matter. Some people are going to have lots of antibodies that are really good and probably will be highly protected. Others might not have so many antibodies or antibodies that are not quite as good and may not be as highly protected. I think, at a population level, that having antibody responses means most people will not get as sick, if they get sick at all. But for a given individual, we actually don’t know that answer.

Listen to the C-SPAN interview with Sarah Fortune: Dr. Sarah Fortune on the U.S. Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic