Erin Tranfield’s telescope was one of the first to image the coronavirus in April in Portugal. (Contributed)

Erin Tranfield’s telescope was one of the first to image the coronavirus in April in Portugal. (Contributed)

Okanagan scientist first to snap photo of COVID-19 in Portugal

‘Nowhere in the handbook of anything is: ‘how do you deal with a pandemic you don’t understand,’ she says

A former Oyama resident, turned scientist, was one of the first to see the coronavirus under her mega-powered microscope.

Dr. Erin Telley (nee Tranfield) now lives and works in Portugal, where she’s lived for the past seven years.

With overarching technical expertise in high-resolution imaging, Telley was invited to set up an electron microscopy facility in Portugal at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência. She is now head of the institute, the most advanced imaging centre for biological science in Portugal, president of the Portuguese Microscopy Society and the person who took the first images of this “wretched” virus in Portugal.

“That is how you have to see a virus,” said the 41-year-old, who attended Wood Lake Elementary (when it existed) and George Elliott Secondary.

In early April “when we didn’t know anything about this virus,” she was contacted by a colleague at another institute (Pedro Simas at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes) and asked if she could help with the imaging of SARS-CoV-2 — or, as it’s commonly known, COVID-19.

“We are the most equipped centre to look at this virus.”

What most people don’t realize is this virus, which is called novel for a reason, brought the entire scientific community to a screeching halt. It was and continues to be a sole focus in science because it is so new.

“Everybody is so used to scientists knowing what’s going on,” Telley said.

But this virus is unlike anything they have seen before, and it continues to surprise even scientists in how it affects people.

“It’s a very fascinating virus because it’s doing things we don’t understand,” said Telley of how the virus hijacks cells and triggers an immune response in the entire body.

“It’s a cytokine storm. The signalling compounds take off and you can’t stop it.”

Telley points to the varying symptoms, from heart issues in young patients to a loss of smell, as well as unexpected or long-term complications.

“We need to study this virus and understand it.”

But as the second wave hits, history shows it could get worse before it gets better.

“If you look at the Spanish flu and the mortality rate, the second wave is where you see the highest rate of mortality,” Telley said.

But, she adds: “Each wave got smaller and smaller.”

It isn’t expected to suddenly disappear; just like influenza is still around. But the flu vaccine helped the numbers drop.

“It took four years with a distant decline and I think we will do the same,” said Telley.

“I think it’s absolutely marvelous that 12 months after we started this, we already have a vaccine for it.”

This time next year, she doesn’t expect we will be back to 2018 normals, but we won’t be seeing the same number of cases, those in hospital and deaths as we are today.

READ MORE: Another 694 diagnosed with COVID-19 in B.C. Thursday

While it may feel as though this virus, and the associated restrictions, are going on forever, “it’s going to fade,” Telley said.

“When people say they’ve ‘had enough of it,’ I’m so with you.

“I want to come home.”

She was supposed to come home for Easter, but that was cancelled. Now, her mom’s 70th birthday has been put on hold and any plans of seeing her nana in Winfield for Christmas are out of the question.

It’s also been two years since she’s seen her nieces and nephew.

But she also has colleagues who can’t see their own grandparents in Lisbon, who live just a few kilometres away.

“This is tough.”

The accumulation of restrictions is also playing a toll on people’s physical and mental health.

“We’re all sick of this, we’re all tired of it.”

But, she is adamant that if more people abide by the restrictions, things could get better sooner.

“This is where we really have to make the effort to stick to the rules because you see the numbers going up.”

She is often frustrated by those who, out of spite and desire for control, refuse to wear a mask.

“I often ask, ‘Do you wear a seat belt?’ I don’t understand how a mask and a seat belt are different,” she said, as they are both designed to protect us.

“One we grew up wearing and one we’re just being told to wear.”

Again, it’s the novel idea.

Just as scientists and medical professionals are learning new things about this virus every day, they are also learning new ways to keep us safe.

“Nowhere in the handbook of anything is: ‘How do you deal with a pandemic you don’t understand.’”

But working 16-hour days in the lab leaves her with little energy to convince those who think this is some kind of government conspiracy otherwise.

And she’s pretty sure all the people working tirelessly in care homes, hospitals and medical labs feel the same.

“We’re killing ourselves for you. It would be way simpler to say someone created this. Then we can blame someone. But if we can’t hate someone then we just pretend it’s all fake,” Telley said of those who are constantly attacking media reports and government restrictions.

“Being angry at governments, being angry at people, it accomplishes nothing.

‘This is the first time all governments agree.”

Professionals like Dr. Bonnie Henry are doing a great job of balancing economic stability and the health of people, Telley said.

“But everyone has a part. Even if the part is just staying home when you don’t have to go out.”

She compares listening to doctors to this: “If my brother was an electrician and told me not to play with high voltage lines I wouldn’t say, ‘Well this is my body and you can’t tell me what to do with it.’”

Having seen the virus closer than anyone else in the public, Telley understands that people are frustrated and want an outlet.

She feels the same way too.

So instead, she’s taking the time she does have to do those little things she’s always wanted to and find the silver lining wherever she can.

“I am a master sourdough maker now,” Telley laughed.

Although an expert in her field, she was the first foreigner at her centre, which is predominantly older white males. Standing at six-foot-four, she also towers over them.

Telley obtained a PhD from UBC before she was 30. “My whole career was kind of an accident. I kind of just followed what was interesting.”

READ MORE: Case of COVID-19 at Vernon high school


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A Lisbon resident for seven years and married with two cats, Telley says her heart still belongs in the Okanagan. “I’m an Oyamaite. I will be forever.”


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On the right is a cell infected with SARS-CoV-2. The white box is enlarged in the left image showing mature virus particles. (Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes - Pedro Simas/Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência - Erin Tranfield)

On the right is a cell infected with SARS-CoV-2. The white box is enlarged in the left image showing mature virus particles. (Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes - Pedro Simas/Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência - Erin Tranfield)

On the right is a cell infected with SARS-CoV-2. The white box is enlarged in the left image showing mature virus particles. (Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes - Pedro Simas/Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência - Erin Tranfield)

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