Before the pandemic, Dr. Benjamin tenOever was used to blank stares after telling people he worked in virology. But now that virus research and vaccine technology are crucial in stopping the spread of COVID-19 – not to mention prevalent in our everyday vocabulary – that has changed dramatically. TenOever no longer has to explain his field of study, but he is getting new questions, mostly about vaccines.
In March 2020, the tenOever Lab at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York city was one of fewer than 20 labs in the world working on non-coronavirus mRNA vaccines. This made it easy for the New York lab, founded in 2007 by tenOever to study the interaction between viruses and their hosts, to shift immediately to mRNA vaccine development for COVID specifically. TenOever was vaccinated within months, in September 2020.
I spoke with tenOever this summer by phone while he was walking through New York’s Central Park. Though it’s only a seven-hour drive from NYC to where he grew up in Smithville, Ontario in a Christian Reformed (CRC) community, the closed border has kept him from visiting his parents for more than a year. As he posted on Twitter, tenOever has a six-month-old Newfoundland dog. Perhaps his choice of pandemic puppy is a nod to his homeland? And his Twitter handle might be the fastest way to describe his work in biodefense: on that platform, he’s @virusninja.
Why vaccination matters
Vaccine-hesitant Canadians cite the speed of development as a concern, which tenOever is uniquely positioned to address because he’s been researching mRNA vaccines for over a decade. In fact, he won a Pew Scholar Award 13 years ago for his work on mRNA vaccines for influenza. His explicit intent, even then, was “to generate a new way to make vaccines, in hopes that one day any virus that threatens mankind could be counteracted with a safe vaccine” – a statement from 2008 that now sounds eerily prescient.
The tenOever Lab at Mount Sinai, a Biosafety Level 3 facility which can handle high-risk pathogens, studies how viruses interact with hosts. “We take apart viruses and rebuild them,” he says, to better understand how disease happens, where things go awry, and how to fix them at the molecular level. All of that informs vaccine development.
“The mRNA vaccines take a very different approach from traditional vaccines,” he explains. “Instead of taking the virus and destroying it to educate your immune system, you write a piece of software and upload it to your body, and you teach your immune system to make just one tiny piece of the virus – it’s more specific. The mRNA technology is much faster and much easier to mass produce. So the real question was whether it would work as well as traditional vaccines – and to everyone’s surprise, it actually works much better.” This refers to the stronger immune response generated by mRNA vaccines, as multiple studies have shown.
“Certainly, if you look at the numbers, it’s near 100 percent safe,” he says, in response to concerns about the mRNA vaccines. “It’s scary because it’s new, but in the U.S. we’re already 50 million doses in and we’ve had less than a half dozen adverse reactions. You have more risk of having something happen on the way to getting the vaccine by several orders of magnitude than you have from the vaccine.”
When that’s not enough to convince people, tenOever will go into more detail about the long-term effects of COVID-19. His lab has moved on from vaccines to modeling long-COVID in Golden Hamsters, who, when they don’t die from the virus, are “more like your average 20- to 50-year-old human,” he explains. “They get the virus; it replicates in their lungs; they have some respiratory distress, and after Day 8 or 9 they start clearing the virus and they recover, which happens in most people.” No big deal, right?
Not so fast, he says. His lab is now focusing on what the virus does in the brain to cause “brain fog” and the loss of memory, smell and taste among COVID patients. “All those changes,” he says grimly, “look [at the molecular level] like the early signs of Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s. The neural pathways slow way down during COVID. We obviously don’t know yet, but from the animal models, we anticipate that many people who had the virus and lost their sense of smell are going to be at much greater risk of developing neurological diseases down the road.” That’s what happened about 10 years after the 1918 influenza pandemic, he adds, and “it looks like the same thing is going to happen here.”
“The risks are not just ‘Will I die of an acute infection?’ I agree, you probably won’t. But the long-term risks also need to be taken into account.”
A uniquely global goal
TenOever decided to go into the field of virology as a teenager. “My father is a veterinarian and clearly an inspiration in this area,” he says. “I grew up in a small-town CRC community of dairy farms where I would go with my father on calls and watch lots of veterinary medicine, which is quite extraordinary for a young kid to see.” Though tenOever says his Christian upbringing had an impact on many of his life choices, he had a lot of questions growing up that the community wasn’t ready to answer. He is now relatively agnostic; his family back home remains devout CRC. TenOever did his undergrad at McGill University in a pre-med program, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps, until a professor piqued his interest in viruses. After that, he says, “I focused on virology and never looked back.”
His passion paid off, as the 11 prestigious awards he has received since 2008 signify – from the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2008 to the Pew Innovator Award in 2017. Last year, his lab received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as from the federal government through Project Warp Speed to test drugs that already had FDA approval to see if any of them could stop the virus from replicating. Those results were shared with medical consortiums around the world.
“We found two drugs (interferon and amodiaquine) that both work in hamsters and are in clinical trials now,” he says. “The drugs are only meant for those who end up in ICU with COVID-19. Now we’re looking for drugs that help the long-haulers.”
This fall, after 14 years teaching Medicine and Microbiology and running the tenOever Lab at Mount Sinai, tenOever is transitioning into a new position at New York University, where he’s been hired to build his own Virology Institute which he has termed The VIRION. The new location will allow his work to continue on a much bigger scale. It’s an impressive accomplishment, and it demonstrates the growing importance of virology beyond its impact in the medical world.
“If we stay ahead of any nasty variants,” he says, “we’ll be rid of COVID within a year. All we need is 70 percent herd immunity and it will not have space to reproduce. I think we’ll watch it fade it into oblivion in a year or two. That’s my prediction.”
Interested in reading more? Go behind the scenes with Joseph Schuurman as he interviews a doctor (who happens to be his mom) at a local COVID clinic. Rudy Eikelboom examines the science behind brain fog and other long-term COVID effects in his column. Janet Greidanus describes the excitement and joy among some of the first Canadians who received the vaccine early in 2021.