It’s been only four days since the US Olympic Committee announced the creation of an infectious disease advisory group, and already, questions are starting to pour in from athletes and staff worried about the ongoing Zika outbreak in the host country Brazil.
The woman now responsible for fielding those questions — and addressing the larger worries from Team USA about the spreading virus as the Olympics approach — is Dr. Carrie Byington, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Utah, who was tapped to lead the advisory group.
In addition to addressing those individual concerns, Byington and her colleagues face the challenges of guarding American athletes from a formidable mosquito foe; responding to a virus that researchers around the world are still trying to understand; and managing fears not so much about how the people who get infected will be affected, but about the possible consequences for their future children.
“It will be extremely difficult to prevent all mosquito exposure,” Byington said. “We just want to make sure the athletes are prepared as possible.”
In an interview with STAT, Byington said the advisory group will come up with recommendations for how best to protect and monitor the athletes and support staff traveling to this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, starting in August.
Although much of the attention will be on Zika — a virus that’s been linked to severe birth defects in Brazil, with hundreds and possibly thousands of babies born with underdeveloped brains and abnormally small heads — the group is also considering other mosquito-borne viruses, including dengue and chikungunya.
Doctors who know Byington are confident that the nation’s athletes — and the scores of support staff — are in good hands. “Carrie’s always been very good at looking at the data before she makes a conclusion,” said Dr. Kathryn Edwards, a pediatrician at Vanderbilt University who has known Byington for years.
Byington is best known for her work on using advanced molecular techniques to rapidly diagnose bacterial and viral infections. She has not studied mosquito-borne viruses before, but she has collaborated in the past with Salt Lake City-based BioFire Diagnostics, which is owned by French biotech firm BioMérieux, and is one of several companies now trying to develop a reliable Zika test.
As the Games approach, the advisory group will review any Zika diagnostics ready by then to see if they might prove useful for the Olympics.
Byington said the Olympic committee wanted a woman to lead the advisory group so that female athletes and staff would be comfortable asking their questions. Joining Byington on the panel are another woman, Dr. Randy Taplitz of the University of California, San Diego, and one man, Capt. Martin Cetron, who directs the division of global migration and quarantine at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All three are infectious disease experts.
Byington is also the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ influential committee on infectious diseases, which every three years publishes and updates the so-called Red Book, a resource used by pediatricians around the world when identifying and treating different infections.
“This is like the Bible of pediatric infectious diseases,” said Dr. Sheldon Kaplan, head of pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, where Byington went to medical school and completed her residency.
“She’s highly organized,” Kaplan said about Byington. “She’s a very nice person, and people listen to her. She’s a person who develops a consensus around something and gets people to work in a collaborative nature.”
On Monday, USOC Chief Executive Scott Blackmun announced that athletes would need to make their own decision about traveling to Brazil, but added that he did not know of any competitor who has definitively decided not to go. The USOC will be providing mosquito nets and repellents to athletes.
“Based on the information that we have today, we are not looking at any overall options — it’s up to each athlete,” Blackmun said at the Team USA Media Summit in Los Angeles.
American athletes have for the most part said they still plan to go to the Games, which will actually take place in Brazil’s winter, when mosquitoes are not as active. Swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, whose fiancee is due to give birth to a son in May, told the Associated Press that his family would join him in Brazil. But soccer goalie Hope Solo has voiced some concerns.
Byington’s goal is to make sure the athletes and staff are as safe as possible, but she said she hopes to be able to conduct some research on the poorly understood Zika virus and what the infection does in people. Should an athlete contract the virus, that might mean studying their infection, Byington said.
“That’s an opportunity to share knowledge with the rest of the world.”