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Niles native helped to name virus

Dr. Benjamin Neuman, left, a virologist at Texas A&M University, helped to develop the official name for the COVID-19 virus, SARS Coronavirus Two. Here Neuman, a Niles native, and his family visit Nugget Falls at the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska. To his right are his wife, Nicola, and children, Theia and Isaac. (Submitted photo)

NILES — A Texas A&M virologist with local ties was on the naming committee for COVID-19 and says that while we are on the road to beating this virus, people still need to be cautious.

“I was on the committee that officially named it. The official name is SARS Coronavirus Two (SARS CoV-2). So, that’s the virus. The disease that was named by the World Health Organization is COVID-19,” Dr. Benjamin Neuman said.

He’s come a long way from bringing injured birds to his childhood Niles home to study. Neuman is now an associate professor and the chair of biological sciences at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses transmitted between animals and people that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV). Neuman has been studying coronaviruses for years and had discovered a relative of coronavirus in Chinese frogs as well as a sea slug corona-like virus.

“It’s just called (SARS CoV-2) because it’s genetically really similar, like nearly identical to SARS Coronavirus One,” said Neuman, who’s been working with SARS CoV-1 since the early 2000s.

“It’s also a more difficult problem… the original SARS had a more consistent disease pattern. It seemed like there weren’t as many mild cases, and there weren’t asymptomatic cases as far as we knew. With the new virus, there are both of those things, and there isn’t a real consistent set of symptoms.”

NILES TIES

Neuman, 45, is the son of Doug Neuman, a probate and real estate attorney in Niles for the last 42 years; and Billie Porter Neuman, a probate paralegal. He is the oldest of our four children that also includes Jake, a CPA; Rebecca, a pharmacy tech; and Sam, the director of corporate communications for Audible Books.

He graduated from Niles McKinley High School in 1992 before attending the University of Toledo and getting his doctorate in biological sciences from the University of Reading in Reading, UK.

“We introduced all of the children to the local, state and national parks, and explored numerous museums together, but Ben is the only one that drifted to the sciences,” said Doug Neuman, reflecting on the fossils, insects, tadpoles and injured birds the boy would bring home to study.

“He has always been interested in learning more about things. Several good teachers in Niles encouraged him. He taught himself hieroglyphics and Sanskrit in his free time, is a self-taught paleontologist, and composes on the piano. Ben is knowledgeable on many topics and we find him delightful company.”

Doug Neuman is a long-term transplant recipient, and has a suppressed immune system. He said Ben has been checking in on him daily to monitor his situation, “so far so good.”

“Billie and I are amused that he has seriously pursued knowledge about coronaviruses for more than 20 years, but the general public had no interest in the topic. Until SARS-CoV-2 arrived, only the other serious coronavirologists knew about Ben and his work,” said Doug. “We are proud of how he is using his abilities to benefit others.”

CAN BE UNDETECTED

Neuman said the regular flu season on top of allergy season are reasons why this virus is going undetected in most cases.

He also said we can defeat this disease this year — depending on what we do.

He suggests we continue wearing masks, washing our hands often and staying six feet apart. He also hopes that the country continues to stay locked down for a little while longer or we’ll see a spike in cases.

He used the analogy of having vegetables on your plate: “You’ve just got to eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert. You can’t just keep pushing your peas around.”

He said this virus is fragile; it doesn’t transmit easily from one person to another. He said people need to be face-to-face for about 10 to 15 minutes of talking. He urges people to continue talking to each other, just from six feet away and while wearing a mask. If we don’t do this, we are just prolonging the battle.

“The downside, if we don’t do this, is this thing coming back and you are burying one out of every 50 people that you know, every year from now until forever. We have this one year to get it right. And if we mess it up, and this hangs around and becomes seasonal, then this is just the part of life that everybody now has to live with whether they wanted to or not,” Neuman said.

OPTIMISM

Despite this scary possibility, Neuman does feel optimistic that we can beat this.

“I like how fast the vaccines are moving, we’ve got them in testing, and I think you’re going to see vaccines developed, or at least tested out in record time,” said Neuman adding that there will still be a trial period to see which vaccines actually work. “There’s been 17 years of solid coronavirus research and there have been thousands of drugs and vaccines, variants on vaccines that have been tried and a lot of them have been successful. We have a lot of potential solutions.”

Neuman adds that there are five or six vaccines in trials right now, but if we continue to social distance, we may not need them.

“We’re going to be able to stop this and we can stop it, even without a vaccine. All we have to do is limit transmission. And right now it’s working. The curve in the United States has flattened out and it’s going downhill. And we’ve just got to stay the course for another month or two and this curve is going to go right down to the bottom The virus is going to essentially just disappear from the earth and we’ll be able to get back to normal,” Neuman said.

bshiller@tribtoday.com

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