Quanta Magazine

In the United States and some other countries, the Covid-19 pandemic has entered a paradoxical stage in which the coronavirus has evolved into a highly contagious variant and sent cases soaring, but the public’s attitude has evolved toward indifference, deflating precautionary measures.

Immunologists like Akiko Iwasaki of the Yale School of Medicine, keenly aware that the consequences of the unfinished pandemic are still playing out, continue to combat the virus in the lab. “The enemy has evolved, and the world needs next-generation vaccines to respond,” Iwasaki recently wrote in an op-ed column for The New York Times. Although current vaccines against the coronavirus are highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, they are less successful at preventing infection. Vaccines in the form of a spritz up the nose could change that, Iwasaki said, by heading off infections and the array of symptoms known as “long Covid” that linger for many former patients.

Iwasaki’s group at Yale, like other laboratories around the world, is developing such nasal sprays. She and her team are also trying to tease apart the mystery of long Covid and why only some people are afflicted with it.

The pandemic “has transformed my own science,” said Iwasaki, who like many other researchers reoriented her lab toward studies of the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic. Previously, much of her laboratory’s work had looked at how the portion of the body’s defenses called the innate immune system detects viruses and how that helps to prime the immune responses in mucous membranes.

Around that same time, in March 2020, Iwasaki found the boundary between her job and her personal life dissolving, because what had been niche conversational topics about immunology with colleagues and students suddenly became of great interest to the public. With a deluge of alarming reports about Covid flooding the news, Iwasaki found herself becoming a lifeline for the worried and the curious who came to her on Twitter with questions.

She teaches on social media, and knocks down misinformation, with the same fervor that she brings to her research — and is eminently qualified for both battles. In 2018, Iwasaki was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and in the following year to the National Academy of Medicine. In 2021, she was elected to the European Molecular Biology Organization and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is also leading a newly launched Yale Center for Infection and Immunity that will expand her research into diagnoses, treatments and nasal vaccine development for infectious diseases.

Quanta spoke with Iwasaki about the evolution of the pandemic, her efforts to teach the public and why she thinks the nasal spray may be the new weapon that we need. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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