Five Questions with Dr. Jamie Phillips – COVID-19 and Flu Season

December 28, 2020

Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, Roche Diagnostics has played a central role in developing and supplying tests to help identify those with active infections and those with antibodies to the novel coronavirus. Dr. Jamie Phillips, Senior Scientific Affairs Manager, has been on the front lines from a diagnostic manufacturing perspective, leveraging her years studying coronaviruses and other respiratory pathogens to help launch Roche's SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic tests.

In a new blog series that takes you behind the scenes with those who are leading the fight against COVID-19, Dr. Jamie Phillips shares her perspective on the testing landscape and how we must prepare for what could be a very challenging winter as COVID-19 converges with the flu and other respiratory viruses.

 

Q: How did your PhD and postdoctoral studies on coronaviruses and the role co-infections play with influenza help to prepare you for this moment?

 

Long before coronaviruses were a common household name, I was studying them to understand genes associated with pathogenicity or the ability of a pathogen to cause disease. Years of research gave me a deep understanding of how coronaviruses function, and I’ve been able to bring specific knowledge to my role at Roche, helping to make informed decisions about the design of testing solutions. In addition, I have been able to advise on how different testing modalities should be used, including where particular tests should be used and which populations we should target based on their performance, so that we can help healthcare providers provide the best solutions to their patients.

 

Q: What was it like at the start of the pandemic? How has your role evolved over the last several months?

 

Throughout the pandemic, I have served as an advisor across the diagnostics business – a role which has been incredibly rewarding. I have never felt that my work has been more purposeful, seeing every day how the work we’re doing is directly impacting the world.

At the start of the pandemic I was lucky enough to be part of the team who worked to commercially launch the cobas® SARS-CoV-2 test. My primary role was to track mortality rates, watch how the virus was circulating globally and to closely follow the unprecedented amount of peer reviewed literature that was being published to ensure important scientific developments were factored into Roche’s decision making.

 

Q: What should we anticipate as the flu season arrives? Is there anything that we can learn from continents, such as Australia, that experience their season before the U.S.?

 

No two influenza seasons are the same, though scientists often use the southern hemisphere’s influenza data to predict the prevalence in the northern hemisphere. For the 2020-2021 season, scientists have predicted mild influenza seasons for the northern hemispheres in comparison to previous years. When we stop to think about why we may be seeing a mild influenza season, there are several behavioral changes that are thought to play a role, including social distancing, better hand hygiene, and mask wearing all changes made to prohibit the spread of SARS-COV-2 but also have an impact on other respiratory pathogens.

 

Q: Roche recently received Emergency Use Authorization for its high-volume cobas® SARS-CoV-2 & Influenza A/B Test and cobas® SARS-CoV-2 & Influenza A/B point-of-care test. What are the benefits of combining flu and COVID-19 in a single test?

 

Healthcare providers are challenged with differentiating these pathogens because they are circulating at the same time, and because patients may present similar symptoms. Having an all-in-one test gives them ability to determine whether a person has coronavirus, influenza A or influenza B in one fell swoop. This not only simplifies the process for providers and patients but also helps with supply shortages. By testing for all three pathogens with one sample, we are optimizing resources so that other patients can also get tested.

 

Q: Given what we know today about COVID-19 and the resources we have to fight it, what do you see as the most important tactics we should factor into the country’s response heading into the fall?

 

Although the CDC has identified high-risk individuals – such as those with co-morbidities or the elderly – more research is needed to fully understand how this novel virus causes disease in all individuals.

As we head into fall, there are three things that we need to ensure the proper management of the COVID-19:

  1. Appropriate use of the diagnostic tests that are available to ensure we are treating, and isolating individuals as needed
  2. The need for an antiviral to be brought to market to help curb the disease
  3. A successful vaccine to aid with prevention

Until we have available antivirals and efficacious vaccines, we need to be good stewards of the available diagnostic supplies, self-isolate when symptomatic, and remember to wear our masks to protect others. I am proud of the work Roche has done to bring reliable diagnostics to the market, but we recognize there is more to do. We will continue to relentlessly pursue and scale innovations in SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics in order to get as many tests as possible to people around the world.