Dr. Anna Wald, a clinical virologist who built a career at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington as a leading expert in chronic infections, will be honored by her peers on Oct. 22 when she delivers the John F. Enders Lecture at the nation’s premier gathering of infectious disease scientists.
The meeting, known as IDWeek, is hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and four other professional organizations and was originally scheduled to take place in Philadelphia. Because of COVID-19, the entire conference will be carried out online, and Hutch professor Wald will give her talk from her Seattle home.
Since 1988, delivering the Enders lecture has been recognized as one of the highest honors conferred in North America to experts in infectious diseases.
“This is such a delight, and I am incredibly proud that she is getting this hugely deserved award,” said Dr. Larry Corey, past president and director of Fred Hutch, who received the same honor himself in 2001. “It’s especially poignant when you get to see one of the people you helped mentor get such recognition.”
It was Corey who persuaded Wald to add herpesviruses to her repertoire after she came to UW from Boston to work with Dr. Ann Collier and him in the AIDS Clinical Trials Unit. Wald today wears many hats, including her role as attending physician for the Infectious Disease Consulting Service at Hutch clinical care partner Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and head of the Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at UW.
“I always chose who I wanted to work with, rather than what I wanted to work on, and I think I did OK,” Wald said in a recent interview about her forthcoming talk.
The IDWeek talk will be the second time in a row that the work of Fred Hutch researchers has been so recognized. Last year’s Enders lecture was given by Dr. Michael Boeckh, director of Infectious Disease Sciences at the Hutch.
Like most of her colleagues in virology, Wald’s long-running research has been interrupted by the sudden emergence of SARS-CoV-2, and she shifted her efforts to focus on clinical studies of potential COVID-19 vaccines. But her talk, “Developing Vaccines for Old and New Pathogens,” will underscore the importance of developing vaccines against pathogens such as Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus, which cause chronic infections responsible for a huge burden of disease throughout the world.
'The fastest way to develop a vaccine is to make one that mimics the immune response, when you have an infection that the body can normally resolve on its own. But those are the easy ones. Now we have just the difficult ones left.'
“There are vaccine constructs available for both of those diseases, but they have not proceeded to more advanced clinical trials because those vaccines were not perceived as effective,” Wald said.
Instead, these potential vaccines have failed to draw development dollars because their effectiveness ranges around 50%, far below that of classic vaccines like those for measles, which can prevent disease more than 90% of the time.
“The fastest way to develop a vaccine is to make one that mimics the immune response, when you have an infection that the body can normally resolve on its own. But those are the easy ones. Now we have just the difficult ones left,” she said.
Those difficult ones include HIV and a variety of herpesviruses, chronic infections that linger because the body has not evolved a natural way to eliminate them. Wald believes that a less-than-perfect vaccine for these chronic diseases could still substantially reduce the amount of human suffering they cause.
“The Food and Drug Administration has come out and said that as long as a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is 50% effective, they are prepared to license it,” Wald noted. But the bar for chronic infections caused by herpesviruses has been made much higher.
“Herpesviruses co-evolved with us. They have figured out a way to live with the host without killing the host. They are able to persist — that’s their trick,” she said.
As such, Wald believes, the development of a vaccine that reduces the risk, rather than completely eliminating the risk of acquiring herpesviruses would be a blessing to millions of people who otherwise suffer from, and may die, from such chronic infections.
“Just because we naturally have chronic infections does not mean we can’t have a vaccine,” she said. “It means we may not be able to make it as effective as we have with other vaccines on the first go.”
The Enders lecture is named for Dr. John F. Enders, who shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1954 for his work on the poliovirus. He died in 1985. The first lecture in his honor was delivered in 1988 by Dr. Thomas H. Weller, a colleague of Enders who shared that Nobel prize with him.
IDWeek is an annual meeting jointly run by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, the HIV Medical Association, the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, and the Society of Infectious Diseases Pharmacists.
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.