A virologist, an immunologist, and an epidemiologist walk into a lab...

Working on this site has opened my eyes to the many worlds of science. I’ve written a few blogs about the COVID-19 pandemic and the general study of viruses known as virology. I’ve also covered aspects of immunology in the case of Dr James Allison and Professor Tasuku Honjo winning the Nobel Prize for their work in cancer immunotherapy. But it got me thinking: what’s the difference between virology and immunology? During my research, I was reminded of a third science: epidemiology. Let’s look at all three.

What is virology?

Virology is a branch of science that studies viruses. That also makes it a subclass of microbiology as it works with microscopic organisms to analyse their ability to create and spread viruses. Virology is an important science as it can help us understand how viruses form and spread and how to reduce their damaging effects. Although COVID-19 has had a detrimental effect on the world’s population since its discovery in 2019, the groundwork laid out by years of virological research meant they were able to create powerful vaccines within months rather than years.

What is immunology?

Immunology is a branch of science that studies the immune system. That also makes it a subclass of microbiology as it works with microscopic organisms to analyse their relationships with the immune system as it protects us from infection. Without our immune system, harmful viruses and diseases could damage our health and even cause death.

What is epidemiology?

Epidemiology is a branch of science that studies the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions. That also makes it a subclass of biology as it relates to our bodies and our health. Public health policymakers use epidemiological data to plan and evaluate strategies to prevent illness and that data also helps doctors manage patients suffering from diseases.

What’s the main difference between all three?

Mental Floss covered this question in August when they spoke to members of all three fields. In a nutshell,

  1. A virologist studies the virus, its structure, and how it replicates and spreads
  2. An immunologist studies the immune system, how it works in a healthy body, and how it contributes to thoses viruses and diseases
  3. An epidemiologist studies epidemics—the social and scientific element of viruses and their spread across populations

All three do distinct work that revolves around a common goal: making sure people are as safe as possible from harmful infections. That’s why you will have heard from them over the last 2 years and beyond (e.g. Ebola, SARS-COV-1 [not to be confused with SARS-COV-2, also known as COVID-19], and avian influenza or ‘bird flu’).

So when a virologist, an immunologist, and an epidemiologist walk into a lab, it’s either the start of a science joke or something’s about to go down.

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