What has COVID-19 taught us about disaster research and prevention?

Over the past year and a half, physicians, scientists and public health officials have jumped into action to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, Baylor College of Medicine brought health experts from the U.S. and France together for the COVID-19 Disaster Research and Prevention Symposium to present what they have learned during the pandemic.

The event, co-sponsored by the Gulf Coast Center for Precision Environmental Health, the Office for Science and Technology at the Embassy of France in the United States and the Texas Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL), covered environmental health topics like air pollution and traffic control, as well as disaster response strategies for a global pandemic.

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“Disasters come in many forms: natural, chemical, and biological. Learning from each, and using this knowledge to better prepare and respond to the next one is at the heart of Disaster Research Response, one of the research themes of the Gulf Coast Center for Precision Environmental Health,” said Dr. Cheryl Walker, director of the Center for Precision Environmental Health and professor of molecular and cellular biology, medicine and molecular and human genetics at Baylor.

Air pollution and COVID-19

Because air pollution targets the respiratory system and weakens the immune system, environmental health researchers wanted to know how it would impact people suffering from COVID-19. Dr. Francesca Dominici with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and her team found that higher long-term exposure to pollution is associated with an increased COVID-19 mortality rate. Their data showed that mortality risk was highest among Black Americans, which echoes data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows Black Americans are at nearly two times higher risk of death due to COVID-19 compared to white Americans.

Overall, air pollution did decrease during the pandemic, due in part to a dramatic decrease in traffic as people all over the world stayed home and off the roads. Officials in France took the opportunity to rethink transportation to be more environmentally friendly. Flavien Lopez with Cerema, an urban planning agency in France, showed how streets could be converted to accommodate more bicycles and pedestrians.

The French government even committed money to encourage people to shift to bikes, through payments for training, repairs and parking for bikes. According to Lopez, the efforts have led to a 28% increase in bicycle traffic since 2019, reflected in urban, suburban and rural areas.

“Our speakers pointed to lessons learned to improve environmental health from this COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted stark disparities among communities of color, with more evidence for policymakers of the impact of outdoor air pollution on health, the benefits of the use of bicycles as a viable option for transport and public health surveillance systems for tracking emerging infectious diseases in the future,” said Dr. Elaine Symanski, professor in the Center for Precision Environmental Health and the Margaret M. and Albert B. Alkek Department of Medicine.

Tracking COVID-19

COVID-19 surveillance has been critical to developing public health strategies during the pandemic. The Houston Health Department, together with researchers from Baylor and Rice University, developed a way to track COVID-19 cases using the city’s wastewater. Researchers collected samples from the City of Houston’s public wastewater treatment plants and analyzed the levels of SARS-CoV-2 virus.

As Dr. Loren Hopkins with the Houston Health Department and Rice explained, public health officials were able to use this data to track outbreaks by zip code across the city. This data guided the deployment of public health teams that went into the community to provide COVID-19 testing and to educate residents about public health safety measures. The data also helped provide information about COVID-19 transmission in areas where PCR testing data was limited. Hopkins noted that the wastewater testing method could be used to respond to future disease outbreaks.

Public health officials also tracked the spread of COVID-19 through PCR testing. Dr. Richard Pyles with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston described how his institution quickly developed SARS-CoV-2 tests early in the pandemic to develop an efficient way to track COVID-19 cases in the area.

The symposium presentations also touched on issues like how to respond to future infectious disease outbreaks and how the interconnected environment of humans and animals creates risk for future zoonotic disease outbreaks.

“The COVID-19 pandemic unified biological research around common themes of understanding the biology of its transmission, identifying susceptible populations based on environmental factors, ethnicity and other risk factors,” said Dr. Chris Amos, professor of medicine and interim chief of the section of epidemiology and population sciences and director of the Institute of Clinical and Translational Medicine at Baylor. “Our symposium highlighted key opportunities in collaborative research for communities, U.S. and International populations to combat and control this pandemic.”

During a question and answer session, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, and Dr. Bettina Beech, associate dean of research and professor of population health at the University of Houston, addressed challenges still facing the scientific community like vaccine hesitancy, the spread of misinformation about vaccines and vaccination campaigns for the global population.

“As Louis Pasteur, who discovered principles of vaccination, said ‘Chance favors the prepared mind,’ so let’s remain prepared,” said Dr. Renaud Seigneuric with the Office of Science and Technology at the Embassy of France.

By Molly Chiu

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