Virologist Spends His Days 'Hunting The Thing That Wants To Hunt Us'

May 5, 2020
Originally published on May 5, 2020 8:51 am

As the novel coronavirus continues its global rampage, scientists around the world are racing to stop its spread.

Dozens of projects have been launched under great pressure to deliver a vaccine as quickly as possible.

Among the virologists trying to unlock the pathogen's secrets is Christopher Mores, the director of a new lab devoted to the research of highly infectious diseases. It's part of George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.

"I've always liked the idea of hunting the thing that wants to hunt us," Mores says.

He got hooked on the study of infectious disease by happenstance when he was a sophomore at Rutgers University. He couldn't get into a class he wanted to take, so a buddy suggested he sign up for microbiology instead. The course was taught by the late Douglas Eveleigh — "a totally electric professor," Mores recalls. "He just got into me and totally excited me about the world of microbes. Within a couple of classes, I was like, 'that's what I'm doing.' And I've done it ever since."

Mores' work over the decades since has brought him up close to a lot of dangerous viruses: Eastern equine encephalitis. West Nile. Dengue. Chikungunya. Zika. Ebola.

Now, his attention is entirely focused on this latest microbe of mystery: the new coronavirus.

"The speed with which this thing wrapped itself around the world has just been remarkable to behold," Mores says. "That was shocking for me, to see how fast it went."

Christopher Mores in his office at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.
Melissa Block/NPR

Mores' lab opened up for research on March 24, when COVID-19 cases were spreading quickly throughout the U.S. The urgency of the epidemic made it clear that he and his team should scrap the chikungunya research they had originally planned. Now they devote all of their time to figuring out this new virus.

"There's a tempo and a challenge there," Mores says, "with stakes that you can sense, at least, if not see. It's compelling and it's cool to be in that fight."

Mores typically works 14-hour days, fueled by a constant infusion of coffee. He leads a team of six research associates and graduate students who are throwing everything they can think of at the coronavirus.

Mores is in talks with biotech companies to help test the effectiveness of eventual vaccine candidates. In addition, his team is working on diagnostic and antibody tests.

The way he describes this work, it sounds like a chess match: "How do you figure out what [the virus] is gonna do, and your best move against it, in real time?" he says. "That's what an outbreak gives you."

Mores says he's always looking for the virus to screw up, to show him something that he needs to defeat it. He gives this pathogen credit: It has proved itself to be a wily adversary.

"There's plenty of viruses that are far deadlier," Mores says. "But it's still a very dangerous virus, and it's wildly transmissible. Wildly transmissible. And so, this thing's pretty darn good."

Mores' team evaluates a new diagnostic test for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus, in its clinical lab at the George Washington University Hospital.
Melissa Block/NPR

What's stunning to think about, he says, is that something so genetically simple has managed to bring the planet to its knees.

"It's such a tiny piece of nucleic acid. It's infinitesimal compared to the size of the human genome, and yet it can just totally unravel us," he says. "Those are the things that really give me pause sometimes. Like, wow, how could this thing with so few genes, and so little room to move, figure us out so well? I don't know. I think that's worth respecting."

Every day in his work, Mores is reminded of the urgency of this fight.

The virus, he says, "doesn't care. It's just doing its thing. It's just replicating its RNA."

The challenge for scientists, he says, is this: "Can we be smart enough to see what it's made of, and what is this going to do to us, before it just goes full bore and takes full advantage of every one of the people on earth it can get into? It's up to us to figure it out. It's a puzzle."

It's not the pandemic itself that's surprising, Mores says. After all, experts have predicted an outbreak like this one for years.

What is surprising, and really depressing, is our response.

"A complete failure," Mores says. "There's no putting lipstick on that."

"I see [the coronavirus] as an adversary," Mores says. "I think it's compelling and it's cool to be in that fight."
Melissa Block/NPR

"We see ourselves trying to confront this global threat in probably the most fragmented way ever," he explains. "Every country for itself. And in this country, it's every state for itself, quite clearly. That's all very sad. It's very sad to see. And all that does is, it turns up the mayhem and death dial to maximum, and why every day I go into work and try and dial it back a bit."

As we plot our way forward, Mores says, it's crucial that we remember the hard lessons learned along the way.

"We want to get back to normal. Absolutely," he says. "Everybody needs to go back to school, back to work, back to whatever the hell they did before this. But it can't be to the point of amnesia. We have to still hold some of these scars close and say, 'Let's not have this happen again.'"

Because if there's one thing we do know, Mores warns, it's that this won't be the last outbreak we're going to have to confront.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Scientists around the world are racing to figure out a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Dozens of projects have been launched to deliver a vaccine as quickly as possible. NPR's Melissa Block spent the day with a virologist, one of those tasked with trying to unlock the virus' secrets.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Christopher Mores is no stranger to pathogens.

CHRISTOPHER MORES: I've always liked the idea of hunting the thing that wants to hunt us.

BLOCK: So his work over the years has brought him up close to lots of dangerous viruses.

MORES: Eastern encephalitis.

BLOCK: Also West Nile.

MORES: Lots of work on dengue.

BLOCK: There was Chikungunya and Zika.

MORES: Of course, I was in Sierra Leone for Ebola.

BLOCK: And now this new coronavirus, a microbe of mystery.

MORES: The speed with which this thing wrapped itself around the world has just been remarkable to behold. I mean, it's - that was shocking for me to see how fast it went.

BLOCK: Mores is director of a brand-new lab devoted to the research of highly infectious diseases. It's part of the George Washington University's School of Public Health in Washington, D.C. Coincidentally, his lab opened on March 24, when COVID-19 cases were spreading quickly throughout the U.S. So Mores and his team scrapped the work they had originally planned. Now they devote all their time to figuring out this new virus, and that earns them the gratitude of their co-workers at GW.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Feeling good today?

MORES: We're winning, man. We're winning. So...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You better be.

MORES: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right, take care.

BLOCK: Mores is in talks with biotech companies to help test the effectiveness of eventual vaccine candidates. His team is also working on diagnostic and antibody tests. The way he describes his research into the coronavirus, it sounds kind of like a chess match.

MORES: It's like, how do you figure out what it's going to do and your best move against it in real time? That's what an outbreak gives you.

BLOCK: He says he's looking for the virus to screw up, to show him something he needs to defeat it. And this pathogen has proved itself to be a wily adversary.

MORES: There's plenty of viruses that are far deadlier, but it's still a very dangerous virus, and it's wildly transmissible, wildly transmissible. And so this thing's pretty darn good.

BLOCK: What's stunning to think about, Mores says, is that something so genetically simple has managed to bring the planet to its knees.

MORES: It's such a tiny piece of nucleic acid. It's infinitesimal compared to the size of the human genome. And yet it can just totally unravel us. Those are the things that really give me pause sometimes. Like, wow, how could this thing with so few genes and so little room to move figure us out so well? I don't know. I think that's worth respecting (laughter) So...

BLOCK: Mores typically works 14-hour days in the lab, fueled by a constant infusion of coffee.

MORES: It is just about 10 o'clock.

BLOCK: Ten a.m. And how many cups?

MORES: (Laughter) It's probably three now. So...

BLOCK: Mores leads a team of six research associates and grad students.

MORES: Kareem, what's up, man?

BLOCK: Including Kareem Kabra. They're throwing everything they can think of at this virus.

KAREEM KABRA: It would be an elegant study if we could actually get, like, a spike protein so we can actually compare on two different plates.

MORES: I think that's a good idea.

BLOCK: Every day, Mores is reminded of the urgency of this fight against the virus.

MORES: We have to figure out - it doesn't care. It's just doing its thing. It's just replicating its RNA. But can we be smart enough to see what it's made of and what this is going to do to us before it just goes full-bore and takes full advantage of every one of the people on Earth it can get into? And it's up to us to figure it out. It's a puzzle.

BLOCK: Now, experts have predicted an outbreak like this one for years. What's surprising and really depressing, Mores says, is our response.

MORES: We see ourselves trying to confront this global threat in probably the most fragmented way ever - every country for itself, and in this country, it's every state for itself, quite clearly. That's all very sad. It is very sad to see. You know, all that does is it turns up the mayhem and death dial to maximum and why every day I go into work and try and dial it back a bit (laughter). So...

BLOCK: As we plot our way forward, Mores says, it's crucial that we remember the lessons learned along the way.

MORES: We want to get back to normal, absolutely. Everyone needs to go back to school, back to work, back to whatever the hell they did before this. But it can't be to the point of amnesia. You know, we have to still hold some of these scars close and say, let's not have this happen again.

BLOCK: Because if there's one thing we do know, Mores warns, is that this won't be the last outbreak we're going to have to confront.

Melissa Block, NPR News, Washington.

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