Pharma

Abbott ‘virus hunter’ talks tracking potential future pandemics

Mary Rodgers talked to Healthcare Brew about her work tracking emerging viruses.
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Mary Rodgers

· 4 min read

Mary Rodgers is a hunter. But she doesn’t sit in the woods hunting deer—she works in a lab hunting viruses.

Rodgers manages a global viral surveillance program at medical device and health tech company Abbott as part of its Pandemic Defense Coalition, formed in 2021 to fight against future pandemics like Covid-19. While her official title is associate research fellow, Rodgers is known at Abbott as a “virus hunter” because her team’s mission is to stay a step ahead of emerging viruses so the world can be prepared to combat them.

“We’re really one of a kind in that Abbott has invested in the sustainability of healthcare as a whole by having a program like this that’s industry-led—and the first of its kind—to be able to monitor infectious disease trends so that we have the best diagnostics available,” Rodgers told Healthcare Brew.

A day in the life of a virus hunter

The team Rodgers oversees—which is made up of around 30 people—tracks both new and known viruses that mutate, like the flu and HIV. The team has partners like universities and research centers on five continents that help track viruses around the globe.

A typical day for a virus hunter at Abbott starts by checking in with global partners and catching up on any new developments in viral surveillance, Rodgers said. Then, she spends some time writing manuscripts that share what her team is learning with the larger scientific community. She also spends some time checking in with her team about any scientific developments they may be seeing. Occasionally, she has to take actions like alerting a regulatory body about a potential new viral threat.

Rodgers’s job changed when the pandemic hit. She dropped other projects and focused solely on developing a diagnostic test for the new virus, she said.

“It was all hands on deck during the early days of the pandemic,” Rodgers said.

Covid taught her team many lessons, including how important it is to develop diagnostics as early as possible when a new viral threat emerges, according to Rodgers.

“Our own team started working on developing those tools right away before [Covid] even had a name,” she said. “That’s how we’re planning to respond and trying to make a difference when we’re looking for future potential pandemic threats. Applying what we learned from Covid, about making sure we have some kind of diagnostics ready to go, is really fundamental.”

The hardest part of virus hunting

You may assume the hardest part of being a virus hunter is something complex and scientific, like sequencing a virus’s genome. But, according to Rodgers, the hardest part comes down to logistics.

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“It’s really challenging to ship things internationally,” she said. “It’s interesting […] how all these really practical things ended up being what makes a difference in our speed to a response.”

For instance, to track Covid variants emerging around the world, Rodgers and her team ship tests and samples back and forth with their partners around the globe. But, slow shipping times caused by the plethora of supply chain constraints that popped up during the pandemic made that very difficult, she said.

“That’s another learning from the Covid experience,” Rodgers said. “Establishing relationships with partners helps us be better prepared for the future because some of those things could take months, like getting a permit […] So, it’s not really scientific challenges, per se, but a lot of logistics challenges.” 

Looking ahead

Rodgers said her team of virus hunters are currently focused on keeping an eye on Covid and its variants because although the virus has been downgraded to an endemic stage, it’s still evolving. The team is also keeping an eye on the flu and RSV because, even though those viruses don’t evolve as much as Covid does, “knowing which strain is circulating is really critical” according to Rodgers.

Looking to the future, Rodgers said her team is “always looking to build new and improved technologies to simplify the work we’re doing.”

“I always want to have impactful work, and I feel very fulfilled by the work I’m doing today. It’s definitely having an impact,” Rodgers said. “I want to build on that, and I’m always looking for ways to learn and grow.”

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.