Vito Imbasciani, secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, spoke about the scientific history of the coronavirus, the future of the COVID-19 vaccine and how the ongoing pandemic has shed light on the existing disparities in health care found in low-income communities on Wednesday during a lecture hosted by the International Studies Institute.
Imbasciani completed medical school from the University of Vermont College of Medicine and did his surgical and urologic residencies at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the West Haven VA Hospital. He received his master’s and doctorate from Cornell University.
Imbasciani is also part of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 vaccine task force.
Before starting his lecture, Imbasciani stressed the importance of having a scientific background and knowledge as a politician.
“People who are thinking about careers in government, advising government, or lobbying government must have a basic understanding of science,” Imbasciani said. “They must understand the issues that come with tampering with the environment and know how to create a better future.”
To provide scientific background on the virus, Imbasciani explained how viruses are created and then replicated through RNA strands.
“The basic law of biology is that DNA makes RNA which then makes a protein,” Imbasciani said. “The SARS-CoV-2 virus is an RNA protein created by an RNA strand.”
RNA viruses mutate at a faster rate than DNA viruses due to the lack of special proteins called proteases, which “proofread” and correct errors within RNA strands, said Imbasciani.
The coronavirus dates back to the 1920s when it was first identified in chickens, but it was not until the 1960s when the first human was infected with the virus. Due to its shape resembling a crown, the virus was named coronavirus in 1971.
“Each spike on the virus is made of two proteins, and the cup itself is made of S1 proteins,” Imbasciani said. “As soon as the virus touches the wall of the cell or lining in your nose, our cells allow a protease protein to cut the spike in half and the fragment then enters the host cell.”
Imbasciani said the COVID-19 vaccine is being made to specifically target the spikes of the virus due to the long-term negative effects that occur once they enter the body.
“Many people in California are dying of strokes and heart attacks even after they’ve had COVID-19. Children under two years of age are dying from inflated livers and this is all because the spikes on the virus have the ability to latch onto blood vessels,” Imbasciani said. “This virus may soon become sudden chronic respiratory syndrome because people are unable to purge themselves from the virus.”
When compared to previous virus outbreaks, COVID-19 surpasses the number of deaths by a large scale. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, 774 people died and 858 people died during the MERS outbreak in 2012.
In 2020 alone, COVID-19 killed more than 2.4 million people worldwide.
“Some astronomers could call COVID-19 an extinction event because all it takes is a simple breeze transmission to contract the virus,” Imbasciani said.
As of now, four variants of COVID-19 exist and there are 66 candidate vaccines to solve for these variants, said Imbasciacni. Of those vaccines, 17 are in phase I, 23 are between phases I and II, six are in phase II, and 20 are in phase III. Prior work on the SARS and MERS vaccines also allowed rapid progress with the COVID-19 vaccine, said Imbasciani.
Imbasciani said although the variants of the virus spread more easily, that does not necessarily mean they are more lethal, but that may not always be the case.
“Viruses mutate constantly and one of my biggest worries is that some fluke combination will prevent the vaccine from working correctly,” Imbasciani said. “However, new technology will allow us to look at variants and then we’ll patch the vaccine so that it targets upcoming variants.”
People may find themselves taking the COVID-19 shot more than once a year because of the constant patching of the vaccine, said Imbasciani.
Remo Saad, junior international studies major, said Imbasciani cleared up misunderstandings many people have about the vaccine and its supposedly recent upcoming.
“One common misconception is that vaccines have only been developed within these two years of COVID-19,” Saad said. “Imbasciani shed light on SARS and the scientific evidence that comes with that can hopefully convince people to take the vaccine.”
As of Feb. 17, 8.1 million vaccines have been delivered in the state of California. Yet, many low-income communities have little to no access to the vaccines or information about it.
Imbasciani said adverse impacts on these communities stem from problems with access to proper diets, exercise, healthcare knowledge, professionals, and insurance.
“What would you recommend for policy makers to do in order to address the socioeconomic impacts the vaccine has had on low-income communities?” asked Hugo Villanueva, junior international studies major.
Regions that do not yet have access to the COVID-19 vaccine could be vastly helped by wealthy countries, whether that is providing some of their own vaccines to these consortiums or providing dollars to increase access, said Imbasciani.
The conspiracy theories surrounding the side effects of the vaccine are also something that worries Imbasciani.
“Senate district 26, which is the most white, affluent, post-grad, and wealthy district is where the most anti-intellectual ideas surrounding the vaccine are coming from,” Imbasciani said. “I’m not sure if that has to do with the education they received or the politics of the entire pandemic.”
Imbasciani said he lowered the vaccine decline rate within his staff from 50% to 22% by providing the facts and proof that the vaccine does indeed work. Additionally, he lowered vaccine hesitancy within his veterans to 8% by showing them a video where he is getting the vaccine.
Saad said he was surprised to hear that most anti-vaxxers are found in the most educated and wealthiest regions.
“It’s ironic that wealthy and educated people think this way of the vaccine,” Saad said. “Is it academia or politics influencing their perceptions? Do they think this way because they are taught to question everything or is it because these bachelor’s degrees have a certain degree of arrogance?”
Vanessa Vargas, junior psychology major, said Imbasciani’s background information on the virus serves as valuable information, especially to older generations.
“My mom has a bunch of theories on the vaccine and she comes to me for verification so I’m glad that I can now retain and share this information with her and others who question what the vaccination does to your body,” Vargas said.
Toward the end of his lecture, Imbasciani proposed his idea of a worst case scenario that takes place in 2024, where a highly contagious airborne coronavirus has combined with a highly lethal strain of filovirus normally found in monkeys. This new hemorrhagic virus kills 72 percent of those infected within 48 to 72 hours of becoming infected.
“This is no longer science fiction,” Imbasciani said. “It’s all quite possible, and some people may even say it is probable to happen.”
Alondra Campos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.