Scientists’ work strives to return life to normal

Scientists’ work strives to return life to normal

Dr. Jean Engohang-Ndong


Though he has not had any direct involvement in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Jean Engohang-Ndong, associate professor of biology at Kent State University at Tuscarawas, has been following its development closely.

Engohang-Ndong is a microbiologist in medical microbiology. He has contributed to a number of published studies, holds a patent and also is leading investigations on new chemotherapy for Buruli ulcer, a necrotizing skin disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium ulcerans. He studied in France and is an expert in tropical diseases, molecular mechanisms of microbial pathogenesis and disease control.

Two COVID-19 vaccines were recently approved for emergency use by the FDA, and distribution has begun with healthcare workers and those most vulnerable set to receive their vaccines first.

Engohang-Ndong said the Pfizer vaccine contains the genetic makeup of the virus, and the Moderna vaccine is based on proteins that are part of the virus’ surface. The end result will be the same: A protection will be developed against the virus for those who take the vaccine. With either of the vaccines, two shots will be needed.

“The first shot is going to trigger your immune system to start developing a protection. The second shot, that we call a boost, is to cause the immune system to act faster and stronger,” Engohang-Ndong said.

One of the reasons the COVID-19 vaccine was developed so quickly is there has been an emphasis on the study of molecular biology in this century.

“Molecular biology is occupying a lot of the research ground in medical microbiology,” Engohang-Ndong said. “Because of that, we know the genomes of many different organisms and viruses, making it easier to come up with something like a vaccine compared to the past century.”

While COVID-19, also called SARS-CoV-2, is a new strain of coronavirus, the strain SARS-CoV-1 is not new. After the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak subsided in 2003, the virus fell off the radar for the public, but scientists were still working on it.

“We already had a lot of information that was valuable,” Engohang-Ndong said. “We didn’t start from scratch.”

Due to the lack of interest politically, the funds were never made available to develop a SARS-CoV-1 vaccine, but the information scientists had gathered made all the difference in the development of the current vaccine.

Another reason for the quick development has been the advancements in technology.

“We can do things that we would not have been able to do 50 years ago,” Engohang-Ndong said. “Because of the technology we have today, you have companies that are specialized in reading the genetic sequence of the virus, which we didn’t have many decades ago. So scientifically, it’s not really a surprise that the vaccine was able to be developed in such a short period of time.”

Now that the vaccine has been developed, the focus of the scientists will shift.

“There are many steps that go into digging into how safe the vaccine is and how much protection the vaccine is providing. That requires years of work,” Engohang-Ndong said.

A new strain of more contagious COVID-19 recently popped up in the United Kingdom, but Engohang-Ndong is confident the vaccine will still protect against it. He said it is common for viruses such as the flu to change, and COVID-19 also has the capability to change on a regular basis.

“When we get infected, by the time we transfer the virus to other people, we are actually transferring a strain that is not 100% of what we got,” Engohang-Ndong. “What makes this virus better for us to fight, compared to the flu, is that this virus, SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, is a little more stable than the flu virus. That is exactly the reason why we are able to design a vaccine today that we can be, more or less, sure that we will not have to change tomorrow.”

Despite mutations, the overall protection of the vaccine is still going to be there. The biggest reason to take the vaccine is to prevent complications, which is really what causes the virus to be fatal.

“With the vaccine we are going to be protected against complications such as respiratory and other extreme conditions that can cause us to die from COVID-19,” Engohang-Ndong said, adding those who have underlying health conditions are more at risk to develop complications.

Until enough people are vaccinated and develop an immunity to COVID-19 to stop its spread, everyone needs to continue to respect the rules of public health.

“We’ve established that wearing a mask is essential in reducing the spread of the virus,” Engohang-Ndong said. “Those who are wearing a mask are working toward limiting the spread of the virus. Other people not wearing a mask are canceling the effort of those who are wearing a mask. We are all connected by the air we breathe, and when we cancel the effort other people are doing, at the end of the day, we are participating in making the problem worse.”

Masks not only protect other people from breathing respiratory droplets you create, but they also provide you with a physical barrier against the droplets of others. Establishing a physical distance of 6 feet apart also is important so we do not breathe in droplets that may be carrying COVID-19.

“One thing that is very important is that some individuals view wearing or requiring me to wear a mask as an infringement of my freedom. Yes, you are free to do whatever you want. But if your freedom causes me to get sick, do you think that we are really building a community that is sustainable?” Engohang-Ndong said. “While you are free, you also have to respect that I need to be safe. The minute your freedom is causing problems in the community, which in this case is the spread of the virus, then you are becoming a problem.”

Because the virus effects each person differently, everyone in the community should be very careful to limit its spread.

“We are all different genetically, even brothers and sisters in the same families, and because we are all different, the way we respond to some environmental things including micro-organisms is going to vary from one person to another,” Engohang-Ndong said. “So some people are going to be more prone to get sick compared to other people.”

Beyond genetics is physiology — the way our body works — and that also is a major aspect in how someone responds to the virus.

“Some of us have an immune system that works tremendously well while others have an immune system that works not so well, and that can be because, for instance, what we eat,” Engohang-Ndong said. “Diet plays a very important role in how our body responds to its environment. There is more and more evidence that diet affects the way we respond to infections.”

Engohang-Ndong encourages everyone to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them. “If the vaccine can only protect you from the complications, it’s a plus,” he said. “Either vaccine is valuable. We have to decide to take the steps to take the vaccine. That’s the way we are going to create an environment that allows us to come back to what we call normal.”

Use of the vaccine can limit the dramatic effects of the virus including those who are struggling with the illness itself and the need to get the economy back on track and allow schools to reopen.

Engohang-Ndong emphasized people are connected by the air they breathe, so when scientists develop recommendations, it is not to limit the freedom of anyone. He encourages everyone to be responsible.

“It is really for the good of all,” he said. “When the vaccine comes to us and it’s our turn, we should not give it a second thought, or else we are not going to get to community recovery and go back to normal and resume our life the way we want to see it.”

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