Using evolution to think about the pandemic suggests SARS-CoV-2 can affect social behaviors

October 22, 2020

An ensemble of scientists, with expertise in psychology, biology, neuroscience and medicine, has authored a paper that uses an evolutionary perspective to interpret and assess the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel SARS-CoV-2 virus has infected more than 40 million people and killed more than 1 million worldwide. It has also severely impacted the global economy. 

The paper, which published on Oct. 22 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, includes 10 insights about the pandemic. Athena Aktipis, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, and Joe Alcock, professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of New Mexico, co-authored the first insight about how the virus might affect social behavior in people.  The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, might affect social behavior in people by interfering with the immune system and affecting the brain and nervous system. Download Full Image

“Evolutionary theory can be used at many levels to understand what is going on with the COVID-19 pandemic, from how cells interact to the effect on society and culture,” Aktipis said. “Viruses and other agents of infection are known to affect the social behavior of their hosts by suppressing feelings of sickness during the highest periods of contagiousness, so we applied this line of thinking to SARS-CoV-2.”  

One way a virus can make people feel well when they are most contagious is by altering the immune system response. The SARS-CoV-2 virus interferes with immune system proteins called interferons that coordinate the body’s response to the virus. 

“Interferon is thought to cause social withdrawal and other sickness behaviors when we become ill,” Alcock said. “By blocking interferon, it is possible that the SARS-CoV-2 virus manipulates our behavior and keeps us interacting with other people, which is good for viral transmission — but not for us and especially not for public health.”

Another way a virus can affect social behavior is by targeting the brain. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has sometimes been found in spinal fluid, which means it can likely cross the blood-brain barrier and directly affect the brain and nervous system. It also alters how people feel pain and has caused some form of neurological dysfunction, including headaches, dizziness and even damaged brain tissue, in almost a third of patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

“We do not know whether the effect of SARS-CoV-2 on the brain is an adaptation of the virus or if it is a byproduct of how the virus evades the immune system in general. The neurological symptoms of COVID-19 could be a physiological response of the host to the infection, but based on circumstantial evidence, it is possible that this virus is manipulating behavior to make us not feel sick and act more social,” Aktipis said.

Athena Aktipis

An odorless smoking gun 

There are many symptoms of infection with SARS-CoV-2, but the loss of smell and taste stood out to Aktipis and Alcock as a “smoking gun” that this virus might be an infectious agent capable of manipulating human behavior. Other agents of infection that affect the sense of smell have also been connected to changes in behavior. An example of such an infectious agent is Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite, which has been shown to change how people make decisions, is common in cat feces and is responsible for the disease toxoplasmosis.

“Because the SARS-CoV-2 virus, like every infectious agent, is evolving to meet its own evolutionary goals, we need to consider that it might be changing how we feel in ways to help us transmit the virus. Infectious agents can influence our emotions and behavior, and we should explore whether SARS-CoV-2 is hijacking our behavior to promote transmission,” Aktipis said. “We might not like it, but the fact is we are not always in the driver’s seat. We need to know whether this virus affects our social behavior so we can better predict the spread of the pandemic and determine how to contain and manage it.”

Science writer, Psychology Department


College of Health Solutions faculty collaborate with health community in fight against COVID-19

Several of the college's faculty presented at the fourth annual Arizona Wellbeing Commons conference Oct. 9

October 22, 2020

Faculty, students and staff from Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions joined with more than 300 members of the health community on Oct. 9 to address Arizona’s efforts in the fight against COVID-19 at the fourth annual Arizona Wellbeing Commons conference.

Several of the college's faculty led discussions at this year’s virtual event, which drew health care providers, researchers and educators from all parts of Arizona.   College of Health Solutions David Sklar (inset image at top right) presents at the fourth annual Arizona Wellbeing Commons conference Oct. 9. On stage is ASU's Joshua LaBaer (left) and journalist Jude LaCava. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU Download Full Image

Keynote speakers, reports and breakout sessions highlighted Arizona’s efforts to fight COVID-19  around the Arizona Wellbeing Commons’ seven areas of inquiry: 

  • Neurobiology, aging, dementias and movement disorders.

  • Cancer prevention, detection, management and treatment.

  • Viruses, immunity, microbiomes and infectious disease.

  • Nutrition, obesity, exercise and lifestyle.

  • Mental health, substance abuse, crime and behavior change.

  • Public health and health care services: law, policy and equity.

  • Culture, arts, design and humanities in health.

David Sklar, a physician, College of Health Solutions professor and senior adviser to the ASU provost, led the reporting and discussion in the public health and health care services area, or “swarm” as the areas are called for their flexible structure that allows busy health professionals to come and go as their schedules permit. Participants discussed how the medical situation has evolved since the pandemic began, noting the greater availability of personal protective equipment, although masks are still being reused, and more awareness in emergency rooms about COVID-19-related complications.

“We identified COVID-19 as a priority, but we wanted to make sure that public health also focuses on other public health issues such as climate change and vulnerable populations,” Sklar said, adding that many clinicians discussed their work on that front, including Sue Pepin, a clinical professor in the College of Health Solutions and managing director of health and clinical partnerships at ASU, who recently won a grant to examine the effect of COVID-19 on vulnerable groups.

Health Solutions professors Dorothy Sears and Stavros Kavouras led the nutrition, obesity, exercise and lifestyle swarm, emphasizing the importance of nutrition and exercise in preventing and managing chronic diseases, which evidence has shown make people more susceptible to COVID-19. They also led a breakout session where attendees shared interests and initiatives toward new collaborations in healthy lifestyle projects that reduce vulnerability to disease. Sears noted one promising initiative from Danielle Gilliam, a medical science liaison at the health care company Novo Nordisk, who discussed her efforts to include obesity care training in medical school curricula and national certification testing.

Leading one of the breakout sessions was Mara Aspinall, a Health Solutions professor of practice and co-founder of ASU’s biomedical diagnostics master’s degree program, the first degree of its kind in the U.S. Her group discussed the Arizona business community’s innovative response to COVID-19. “Many companies are working to improve conditions created by COVID-19 with technology solutions,” Aspinall said, citing an app created by the Tucson-based company Pyx Health to help improve the mental health of those experiencing loneliness due to isolation, a growing concern during the socially distanced COVID-19 era. 

Since its beginning in 2017, the Arizona Wellbeing Commons annual conference has brought together Arizona health professionals from academia, clinical practice and the business community for meaningful collaboration toward a healthier Arizona. While the focus was again the same, the current challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic brought greater urgency to this year’s conversations.

“COVID-19 has intensified the need for experts across disciplines to work together to improve the health of all Arizonans,'' said Deborah Helitzer, dean of the College of Health Solutions. “The Arizona Wellbeing Commons has been extremely successful in stimulating collaborative work like this, leading to real, actionable solutions that address the current health crisis as well as future challenges. While the challenges brought on by this pandemic are like none other we have faced, I remain positive and hopeful for a better, healthier future.”

Learn more about the results of the day’s events as well as details about the conference’s sessions and speakers.

Kelly Krause

Media and communications manager, College of Health Solutions