Experts are experts, right? Of course, this is not necessarily true. Experts are experts in their particular field, not everything. For instance, if you want to get an expert opinion on a question related to astrophysics, talk to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but if you want to learn how to cook the best damn beef Wellington, ask chef Gordon Ramsey.
We know experts are not identical, and the same is true for scientists and doctors. Just as a cardiologist isn’t going to treat your acne (you need a dermatologist), a virologist and a biostatistician have very different areas of expertise (although admittedly more overlapping than Ramsey and Tyson). Every profession has specialists, and the COVID-19 pandemic has created the need to parse out the different areas of expertise in biological sciences.
You’ve likely come across mentions in the news of people who are working every day to understand and combat COVID-19. We thought it might be useful to clarify who these experts are, by defining the key “-ologists” that you’re hearing from about the pandemic. We’ll define 6 types of experts, and provide an example of each:
A scientist that specializes in studying viruses specifically. Virologists are experts in the behavior and properties of viruses such as coronaviruses and the specific virus SARS-CoV-2 that is causing the current pandemic. They are discovering information such as how the virus infects us, what it looks like, how it functions, and how it replicates. All this information is critical in our search to find a treatment or vaccine, and virologists are key experts (along with immunologists) on the front lines for discovering them. If you want to know properties about the infectious particle itself that causes the disease or how to fight it, ask a virologist.
REAL WORLD EXAMPLE
Dr. Sandra Ciesek
Dr. Sandra Ciesek is a virologist who heads up the Institute of Medical Virology at the University Hospital Frankfurt. She has contributed to several groundbreaking discoveries since the spread of SARS-CoV-2, such as a method for more rapid testing, and targets for therapy for those infected with the virus.
A scientist that specializes in studying the immune system. Relevant to the pandemic, immunologists are experts at how the immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2 infection and are working on how best to leverage that response to protect people from the disease. As stated above, along with virologists, immunologists are our key experts for developing treatments and vaccines for SARS-CoV-2. These are the experts to talk to about understanding our body’s immune response to the infection.
REAL WORLD EXAMPLE
Dr. Rinke Bos
Dr. Rinke Bos is an immunologist at J&J who has been highly active both in SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development and in related public communication. A great read on what her life as a scientist pursuing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine has been like can be found here.
A scientist that specializes in studying or defining the way a disease affects a population. Among other things, they focus on the incidence (how often people get infected) and prevalence (the number of people who actually are infected at a given time) of the disease in a given population, how rapidly it spreads, and what behaviors or measures could limit or exacerbate that spread. These are the key experts helping us make determinations about practices such as travel bans and social distancing and how they’ll affect the spread of the disease. If you want information about how a population is affected and/or is going to be affected by a disease, ask an epidemiologist.
REAL WORLD EXAMPLE
Dr. Stephen Kissler
Dr. Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at Harvard’s school of public health, uses mathematical models to study and predict the spread of infectious diseases. He was the lead author on a paper projecting the spread of SARS-CoV-2, which he used to draw conclusions about the potential need for extended social distancing.
A scientist that specializes in the mathematical interpretation of biological data. Today we are able to collect unprecedented amounts of data in the form of patient samples, population characteristics, etc., and biostatisticians are experts at analyzing that data and helping us draw meaningful conclusions. They are also critical at designing experiments to ensure we can get meaningful results from the data to be collected, such as in the case of clinical trials.
REAL WORLD EXAMPLE
Dr. Elizabeth Halloran
Dr. Elizabeth Halloran, director of the Center for Inference and Dynamics of Infectious Diseases, uses mathematical and statistical methods to study and prepare for infectious disease outbreaks. Using biostatistics and math modeling, Dr. Halloran was part of a cohort of authors who published a paper last month drawing conclusions about how effective travel bans vs. transmission-reduction efforts (such as handwashing and shelter-in-place) were in controlling the initial spread of the pandemic.
Infectious Disease Doctor
A medical doctor that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases caused by infectious agents, such as viruses and SARS-CoV-2 specifically. Infectious disease doctors are the experts at the systemic and varied clinical presentations of an infection and the best methods available for accurate diagnosis and treatment of the infection.
REAL WORLD EXAMPLE
Dr. Michael Saag
Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease doctor at UAB and viral infection expert, is the embodiment of healthcare professionals putting their lives on the line during this pandemic. He suffered from COVID-19 in March, and after recovering has continued to treat patients.
A medical doctor that specializes in the treatment of diseases affecting the respiratory system. In the context of the current pandemic, pulmonologists are the experts administering effective treatment for COVID-19 patients who have lung-related pathologies such as pneumonia. They are also experts at diagnosing and determining the severity of the disease in a patient and determining what mode of treatment will be most effective.
While many of these experts are related – and often have overlapping skill sets and foci of their expertise – each has their own part to play. To summarize, in the context of COVID-19:
the virologist is the expert at understanding the virus SARS-CoV-2;
the immunologist is the expert at understanding the body’s immunological response to the virus;
the epidemiologist is the expert at understanding the pandemic and how populations are affected by the disease;
the biostatistician is the expert at understanding and interpreting the scientific data we use to make decisions about SARS-CoV-2, the disease COVID-19, and the pandemic;
the infectious disease doctor is the expert at diagnosing and treating patients with the disease COVID-19 (i.e. those infected with the virus SARS-CoV-2);
and the pulmonologist is the expert at diagnosing and treating patients with the severe respiratory presentation of COVID-19.
One similarity among all these experts: they know what they don’t know. And that’s a really good thing. That’s why your primary care physician is probably no more qualified to give advice on shelter-in-place than a chemist or a lawyer would be (now you know to heed the advice of an epidemiologist). Or why a virologist or investment banker probably shouldn’t be taking strong stances on whether or not to put a patient on a ventilator (trust your pulmonologist there).
These are our experts, and they are all doing their part to help humanity get through this unprecedented situation using the best tools, training, and information we have available. We trust them, and we advocate for everyone to continue supporting them so they can get us through this.