“Frontliners” is a new limited series from RYOT in partnership with Yahoo News that tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic from the point of view of individuals doing what they can to help their communities. In this episode, we meet Karl Klose, PhD, a microbiologist studying bacterial pathogens at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
KARL KLOSE: I honestly thought maybe it'll be contained by the local authorities, and we don't have anything to worry about. And clearly I was dead wrong in that regard. This is like the worst scenario, the worst nightmare, of anybody who studies infectious diseases is that there will be a pandemic like this, and we're not prepared.
My name is Karl Klose. I am a professor of microbiology at the University of Texas in San Antonio. I'm also the director of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases here at UTSA, and I'm a researcher.
This is the current COVID situation. There is almost nobody on campus. As the pandemic started to ramp up, and it became very obvious that we have a serious problem in the United States, the university was shut. And so in order for us to be working on COVID, we had to get special permission.
And so we limited the number of people and the number of hours that they're here. So it's hard to get work done when you really have a very, very minor work crew to do it.
My specialty, actually, is bacteria that cause disease in humans. We study the agent that causes cholera, and we study the agent that causes the disease tularemia, which is a bioweapon.
Truly the key to curing the COVID disease is understanding exactly what viruses need to do in order to replicate themselves. It's basically identifying the Achilles heel in an organism, so that you can then direct appropriate therapeutics or preventions, like vaccines, against these organisms.
Hey, Malia, are you using the--
So the idea was, well, can we not take our vaccine that works and now convince the bacterium that it needs to protect against COVID? So that when that vaccine is given to a human it will mount an immune response against the coronavirus. And now all of a sudden your immune system thinks you're being attacked and mounts a response against it.
This is the beauty of the human immune system, and it has a memory associated with it. So you have this immune memory. If you get infected with coronavirus, your body will make antibodies against coronavirus, and those antibodies are meant to protect you for the rest of your life. The concept is actually a very hopeful type of technology that could apply to pandemics in the future.
So I'm back at the lab again. It's a Saturday. This is what I do.
I would probably classify myself as a workaholic. To me it doesn't seem like work. I really enjoy everything associated with research. Pretty quiet on a Saturday.
Since the COVID-19 situation, I've been able to get back into the laboratory and work at the bench, which is super fun for me. Because I do experiments every day. The most exciting thing in the morning is to actually go into the lab and see how did your experiment turn out.
What we know so far is that we can, in fact, express different proteins inside of this organism that we work on. What we're struggling with right now is trying to get this spike protein expressed in such a way so that your immune system will see it correctly to develop the right kind of antibodies.
The other thing is we have a lot of people in San Antonio that are essentially waiting on us to produce the right vaccine, so that they can then test it to see that it's protective against the SARS-Cov-2 virus.
I think that we're going to learn a lot, because of the experiments that we're doing, to identify exactly how to respond much faster in the future. Because we'll have a system set up that we can rapidly then deploy it to produce the right kind of proteins in the right kind of way to protect against future pandemics as well. And who knows, maybe our vaccine approach will actually help in COVID-19 right now. Minimally, we feel like we're contributing in some way, so we're working at it.
My son had to come back from college, because his college closed. So he's now sheltering at our house. My wife is sheltering at home, because she's a school psychologist. And so her work is totally dependent on schools, and so schools are closed. So I think for the people like for my wife and my son staying at home was frustrating, because they were stuck at home.
But for me going out and working in the laboratory, I actually felt like I was contributing to solving this problem. Again, I'm a problem solver, so for me to sit at home and watch TV would have been so incredibly frustrating knowing that I could actually help. I'm not talking about solving the crisis or coming up with the vaccine, but at least chipping away at trying to do something about this disease to help everybody.
From my perspective, this is a blip in time, like all other historical events that have been very major in the moment. But then a few years past you come out the other side, and in fact you're usually better on the other side.
The thing is you have to learn from those experiences and be prepared for the next time. So I think that's really the key is, yeah, this is a horrible time. Yeah, everyone's life has been disrupted. We should move forward taking the knowledge that we learned from this, so we can experience a pandemic like this without having so much disruption.