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Dr. Petri has COVID-19 and reflects on his experience

Editor’s Note: Dr. William A. Petri, who has answered dozens of your COVID-19 questions this year tested positive for the virus this week. We asked him, when he felt better, to share his experience with readers.

There’s a tremendous clarity when one has a diagnosis of this very infectious disease. I regret missing opportunities to mask to lower transmission to my friends. I am relieved when I hear each day that so far they are uninfected, and will always regret if I infected anyone of them. I don’t, however, think there’s anything that I could have done differently to prevent myself from infection.

While the vaccine failed to prevent my infection, it did a great job at helping my body to cure it. In work that Dr. Jen Sasson and I have done at UVa, we’ve discovered that the more COVID-19 virus there is in your bloodstream, the more likely you are to die. What the vaccine and antivirals are doing is keeping virus levels low.

My illness reflects the mixed bag we have right now in Charlottesville. Transmission is at the highest we’ve seen since the winter, yet fortunately we have only one fourth of the number of COVID-19 patients at UVa hospital. So the vaccine is working, and it’s not working. It’s working for what matters the most, which is saving the lives of you and me. This is because it not only gets B cells to make antibodies, but it makes T cells to cure the infection. T cells are pretty amazing; they can essentially unzip a cell and look inside to see if a virus is hiding there. If there is a virus, the T cell kills it. If there’s no virus, it zips us all back up and goes on and checks the next cell.

The virus has a much harder time evading T cells thankfully, and that’s a big reason that I’m doing so well today.

The other reason is because of a former graduate student. While I am far richer from knowing each student I have taught, one of them, Jay Purdy helped save my life this week. Jay got his PhD and MD at UVa in the early 1990s; today he is Vice President at Pfizer, where he led the development of Paxlovid, our most effective pill to treat COVID-19. So thank you, Jay, for making me better!


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