Trevor Bedford is a computational virologist and professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who has devoted his professional life to the pandemic for nearly two years.
On February 29, 2020, he used Twitter to report that the genome of a COVID-19 case reported in Washington state showed the first known community transmission in the U.S. “There are some enormous implications here,” he wrote. His prior work to track the evolution and spread of other viruses has been critical in understanding this global pandemic.
On Feb 29, using the genetic sequence of the first community case of #COVID19 in Washington State, I made the claim that the Washington State outbreak descended directly from the Jan 15 arrival of the WA1 case with direct travel history to Wuhan. 1/18https://t.co/8wWxtiotE3
— Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) May 25, 2020
For his efforts, Bedford has been named a MacArthur Fellow — the so-called “genius grant” that comes with a $625,000 grant paid out over 5 years. This is on the heels of an astounding financial award – a 7-year, $9 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Robin Young, a host of NPR’s Here and Now, interviewed Bedford to learn his thoughts on the origins, spread and possible future of the pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So you’ve had quite a month.
It’s been an overwhelming September, trying to feel like I can contribute into the future.
Clearly contributions are needed. Are you feeling pressure now?
Yeah, and it’s all wrapped up with the pandemic and feeling like I need to somehow try to fix COVID, and it’s impossible to fix it. But that’s going to be the mission at least.
One thing that’s helped is – can I call it “crowd-sourced virus tracking?”
That’s pretty close. We had back in 2015 a thing called “Next Flu” to try to look at how flu is circulating and help with influenza vaccine strain selection.
And you used the same type of tracking to look at Ebola, Zika …
By 2019 we had a pretty good system to take publicly shared viral genome sequence data and very quickly build an evolutionary tree or a family tree and use that tree to understand spatial spread and what’s going on …
The genome is the genetic blueprint?
And then you …
When the first genomes for the novel coronavirus were shared on January 11 in 2020 we immediately had that built and rebuilt [for] a real-time view of what’s circulating and how the pandemic is spreading.
What was your early reaction to this novel coronavirus?
Noticing it was a SARS-like coronavirus which is already scary.
Any other concerns?
[Knowing] how quickly coronaviruses evolve. That the initial infection was only in November 2019 and had very quickly ramped, this let us understand how much human-to-human transmission there was at a time when it’s not acknowledged that there was human-to-human transmission.
How did you built the family tree of the virus?
We need people and groups from across the world to share their data. And during the pandemic that’s been remarkable. We’re looking for particular mutations that are shared among those samples.
What does that tell you along with other data points, like international travelers who’ve been infected by the novel coronavirus?
We’re able to estimate the number of secondary infections that one infection causes. On January 23  we have a public report, we have an “R nought” of 3. And 3 is a really terrifying R nought.
Define R nought.
It means how many infections on average does one infection cause. Flu has an R nought of 2.
Having an R nought of 3 gives you a lot of exponential growth. That is what led to the pandemic very quickly spreading.
And you felt …
That week mid-January 2020 was rough. For a while it felt like I had this special knowledge that I was trying to share with public health [like] WHO.CDC and kind of being alone with this knowledge. Eventually things caught up, which almost made it better in this tragic and ridiculous way.
Now your software is being used around the world – and helping analyze, for example, the spread of the delta strain.
Right now delta has basically taken over the world in a fashion that I don’t think many people would have predicted back in April. And we’re watching very closely for the emergence of a sublineage of delta that has additional mutations on top of delta that is going to be the next thing to worry about.
Has your own life changed?
It actually has gotten difficult to remember what it was like before. It’s been cycles of overwork and burnout, and then particular things cropping up that require more attention like when the variants first emerged.
Do you have any thoughts about the future of this virus?
If we compare SARS-CoV-2 to influenza virus I think it’s a helpful analogy. The evolution of SARS-CoV-2 up to this point has been faster [than the influenza virus]. Having something that’s that evolvable suggests that it will be able to keep evolving. We’ll have to keep updating vaccines.
And the R nought factor [of] 3, which was terrifying back in January 2020, with delta it’s now 5 or 6.
If 3 was “horrifying,” what can you say about 5 or 6?
This is why places like Vietnam that were able to control the original form have struggled with delta. Because of this high rate of evolution it suggests that you’d have something that’s [going to become] the worst of our seasonal respiratory diseases.
What about this winter?
I expect there to be a winter wave. However, we had a number of infections pulled forward by this delta late summer wave that has created its own immunity. Five percent of the U.S. has perhaps gotten delta at this point. So [winter] actually might not be so bad. But looking forward to 2022, 2023 — once this [coronavirus] is endemic that’s where my comparison with flu comes it, where it’s looking like a severe flu season every winter.
For your own future, what do these prizes mean?
It’s the scientific dream of having sustained funding to be directed in whatever fashion you’d want, and that’s amazing.
How does that make you feel?
It’s really been difficult for me to reconcile that with feeling like [these prizes are] coming out of my work on the pandemic. It’s hard to accept things given that it came out of such terrible circumstances.
So you don’t want to benefit from the global pain of the pandemic?