Our Best Hope For A Vaccine: Two Recently-Divorced Virologists Who “Swore They’d Never Do This Again”
COVID is surging and the race towards a vaccine has never been more urgent. While labs around the world make continuing progress, the worldwide medical community agrees our best chance for a solution rests with two independent researchers: Robert Shearing and Linda Shearing-Davis, long considered the foremost experts on infectious disease, married until very recently.
AP spoke with the team outside their facility in Atlanta, GA.
AP: When did you first learn about COVID?
LINDA: We were literally walking out of the courthouse. I had planned a big trip to Tahoe.
ROB: I was about to start the Appalachian Trail.
LINDA: [under breath] again.
ROB: I was doing it this time.
LINDA: There had been whispers in the pathology community about a new threat; I had no idea it would be this serious. A friend of ours texted: “We really need you on this one.”
AP: Do you recall your reaction?
LINDA: Oh yeah. I screamed “ARE YOU F*CKING KIDDING ME” at the sky — then I threw my phone.
ROB: At me. You threw it at me.
LINDA: I threw it at a fountain, actually, Rob, but your stupid face was in the way.
AP: Did you begin work together immediately?
ROB: [Unhinged laughter.]
LINDA: NO… god, no.
ROB: Yeah, no. We imagined working separately would be… best for everyone.
LINDA: But after a series of collaborators…
ROB: You had that Dutch guy.
LINDA: So chatty. And you had the genius-grant winner —
ROB: — who did his best thinking while, get this, dancing.
LINDA: You weren’t threatened by his chest?
ROB: No! Why would — [to AP] I was not threatened by his chest.
LINDA: So after all these people, we realized… [exasperated exhale].
ROB: We work best together.
LINDA: Rob’s system record-keeping, my lab organization…
ROB: The way Linda organizes vials from smallest to largest, to match the viability of each sample…
LINDA: How Rob summarizes our daily progress and places it so it’s the first thing I see each morning…
Eye contact between scientists.
ROB: COVID was not waiting, and neither could we. We agreed to work together.
LINDA: [To herself] Jesus.
AP: Tell us about your research facility.
LINDA: So, with the amount of research being done concurrently, space is at a premium.
ROB: At the same time, local businesses are repurposing, at least until public gathering restrictions are lifted.
LINDA: With so little time to spare, it made sense to partner with a restaurant.
ROB: “A restaurant”?
LINDA: [Labored] …the restaurant where we had our first date.
ROB: She goes and picks La Forna.
LINDA: It was the ONLY PLACE LEFT.
ROB: [Knowing look to AP.]
LINDA: It was!
ROB: Anyway, we store our samples by the host podium — [gestures inside] I must have waited there an hour before Linda showed up! — I was so early.
LINDA: Last time that happened.
ROB: It’s easy to be late when you’re met with — [long breath] — we run our clinical trials by the corner table.
LINDA: God, we sat there and talked for hours.
ROB: Hours. The waitstaff were so patient, finally the head waiter came over and said —
LINDA/ROB: “…might I interest you in leaving?”
LINDA: The restaurant’s cooling systems are ideally suited to our work. The lighting could be brighter.
ROB: Why do you hate low lighting? It’s cozy!
LINDA: [To AP] Please remember to note, my colleague is a vampire.
ROB: That’s right, you want everything lit like the DMV.
LINDA: I forget, Rob, are we trying to kill the virus, or date it? Should we have music playing?
ROB: Like that violinist?
LINDA: Oh my god, the violinist! Who would ever find that romantic? The way he stood behind you, while you were trying so hard to be…
Dr. Shearing-Davis notices her hand is on Dr. Shearing’s shoulder and removes it.
LINDA: The space is… fine, especially for being so temporary.
AP: How would you describe your current progress?
ROB: We’ve made a few missteps, to be sure. But we’ve been told by a variety of professionals not fixate on past mistakes, or assign blame, but focus on the facts as they are today.
LINDA: We’ve also gotten better about celebrating minor victories, without rushing to identify flaws. For example, it’s just as easy to say, “Rob, you did a good job by updating 97% of our stats,” instead of “Rob, why the hell aren’t all the stats updated?”
ROB: See, even the tone of voice with that second one, it’s hard to hear.
LINDA: Okay, I guess that’s another thing for me to work on.
ROB: I’m giving myself permission to be vulnerable.
LINDA: [Exhalation through nostrils.]
AP: Do you feel much pressure, knowing that every day the numbers continue to —
LINDA: YES, WE KNOW THE NUMBERS. WE KNOW A LOT IS RIDING ON THIS. So that’s why we’ll be — [laughs, sighs, shakes head, looks upward] — we’ll be moving into the little apartment over the restaurant. To expedite our work. Sweet Christ, if this were a Hallmark movie I would turn it off.
ROB: This way, there’s no time lost with a commute, no danger of exposure posed by interactions with the outside world — and also there’s a sunny little table in the kitchen where we can do the crossword together in the morning like we used to.
LINDA: I have so many female friends out there who are going to punch me in the head.
AP: Given your current work, do you see much cause for optimism?
ROB: Do I? I couldn’t for a long time. But what I can say today is that Dr. Shearing-Davis and I will never stop until we find success. If we have to work around the clock, with Linda tending her samples and me bringing her little snacks late at night, arranged on the plate like a happy face —
LINDA: You don’t have to —
ROB: — then that’s what we’ll do.
LINDA: That’s right.
ROB: Maybe… we should have been doing that all along.
LINDA: It’s easy to forget. But to answer your question, is there cause for hope…?
Dr. Shearing-Davis pauses, reflecting, and takes Dr. Shearing’s hand.
LINDA: I’d have to say there is.
AP: Thank you for your time. Good luck.
LINDA: Thanks so much. Take care.
The doctors return to their facility.
ROB: That guy’s chest did threaten me.
LINDA: It wasn’t that great.
ROB: After the vaccine, would you want to hike the Appalach—
LINDA: I am not walking a f*cking dirt road for six months.
ROB: Got it.