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Trend 16 March Mar 2020 0648 16 March 2020

How to become a virus hunter

Because of the coronavirus they have become more famous and more in-demand than star chefs and influencers: virologists, infective disease specialists and epidemiologists. Everything you need to know about how to become one of them

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Virologists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists. In a few weeks the spreading of the coronavirus has put jobs that up to now were out of sight in the spotlight. During these hours of endless questions (what is Covid-19? How is it transmitted? How can we protect ourselves?) they are there to provide answers.

Roberto Burioni

One of the most notable Italian examples is Roberto Burioni, who was already famous for his battles against the no-vax, something that prompted him to open the Medical Facts blog, he is today one of the most well known and recognized experts.

Also, Francesca Colavita, the 31 year old researcher from Molise who has become famous after isolating the 2019-nCoV virus at the Spallanzani hospital in Rome. A success that earned for her a fixed contract after years of temporary ones.

Another well known name is Ilaria Capua’s. A virologist known in the medical field for her studies on the bird flu, todays she directs a center of excellency at Florida University and is one of the most authoritative voices on the topic of epidemics.

Francesca Colavita

And then Fabrizio Pregliasco, the chief medical officer of the IRCCS Istituto Ortopedico Galeazzi in Milan, Italy and General and Applied Hygiene researcher at the Università degli Studi in Milan. He is among the most consulted virologist these weeks and is also the president of Anpas Nazionale (the National Association for Public Assistance).

They have all become proper influencers today. Their job is experiencing a growth in popularity similar to star chefs. But how can you become one of them?

First of all, there is a difference between virology, infectious disease studies and epidemiology.

Ilaria Capua

Virology is the discipline that studies the biological and molecular features of viruses. “Medical virology, in particular, is the field of virology that studies viruses involved in human diseases”, Fabrizio Pregliasco explains. “Epidemiology is the discipline that studies the distribution and frequency of medically relevant events in the population. It makes heavy use of statistical instruments.” Infection studies, on the other hand, is the science that finds cures for and treats infectious diseases. In other words, if virology tells us what the virus’ features are, epidemiology tells us about how spread out it is and infectious disease specialists can tell us how the contagion takes place.

To summarize:

  • a virologist studies the molecular and biological features of viruses;
  • an infectious diseases specialist cures and treats infectious diseases.
  • epidemiologists on the other hand study the distribution and frequency of events (such as in this case, the coronavirus) in the population.

Fabrizio Pregliasco

How do you become a virologist?
Medical virologists must also attend specialty schools for microbiology and virology. So after 6 years of medical school you need to attempt to enter the school of microbiology and virology (a four year course). There are only twenty places or so in all of Italy. There are two possible fields for job opportunities: on one hand clinical microbiology to reach diagnoses on viral pathologies; on the other hand research on micro-organisms to test mechanisms of actions and sensitivity of viruses. There are job opportunities in hospital laboratories but also at universities.

To summarize:

  • a 6 year medical degree and 4 year specialty course in microbiology and virology;
  • a masters degree in biology and biotechnologies followed by a specialty school for microbiology and virology reserved to non-physicians lasting 4 years, accessed through a tender after competition notices published by individual universities.

“To become a director of biology in the microbiology and virology fields you also need to take part in a public regional tender”, Pregliasco underlines.

How do you become an infectious disease specialist?
The path is not so different from that of the virologist: 6 years at medical school and then specialty schools - studying infectious diseases - for 4 years.

And what about the studies to become epidemiologist?
“In Italy,” Pregliasco explains, “there is no real epidemiologist title. There is a specialization in hygiene and preventive medicine.” Epidemiologists, therefore, are generally hygienists, with degrees in medicine and specialists in hygiene and preventive medicine. But that may not be so. “L'epidemiologia: una, nessuna e centomila (Epidemiology: one, none, a hundred thousand): this is the title of the 2019 congress organized by the AIE (Italian epidemiology association) and it gives a good idea about the heterogeneity in the epidemiologic approach that can address the individual interlocutors but that, to do so, must have an understandable and guiding language, or it ends up being ineffective. Pregliasco underlines that “medicine graduates can choose to specialise in medical statistics but they can also enrol in postgraduate courses in statistics.

What advice would you give someone who wants to go into these fields?
“I would advise studying medicine and surgery really well to have a good background, whether it’s virology or epidemiology.” he answers. And then specialty schools and experience abroad are also important.” For those who want these, Pregnasco points out “there is a chance to train at a European level, with the Epiet program (training in field epidemiology) devoted to the exploration of epidemics”.

So how much does someone dealing with viruses make?
Looking at data published by hospitals according to the transparency laws on management salaries we can say that:

  • a biologist manager can earn between 40,000 and 50,000 euro a year
  • a medical manager can earn between 70,000 and 80,000 euro a year

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