We’re entering the third year of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s far from over. There has been considerable progress with SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development, with most of the focus on mRNA vaccines and adenoviral vector vaccines. Meanwhile, novel vaccine delivery systems are being tested among efforts to develop a “pan-coronavirus” vaccine that is effective against multiple variants. One such example is ferritin nanoparticle technology developed by researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and their collaborators. Encouraging results from nonhuman primate studies, using several SARS-CoV-2 antigens, were published in 2021 (1–3).
The current surge in COVID-19 cases that began last month is largely due to the Omicron variant in the US, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At present, we still don’t know enough about this variant, but it’s clear that its rapid spread is forcing us to re-examine what we know about SARS-CoV-2 (4). As the virus continues to mutate, new variants will continue to emerge and spread. Although current vaccines can provide protection against multiple variants, breakthrough infections are a concern. Vaccination is still the best option to reduce the risk of infection, hospitalization, and death compared to unvaccinated people.
It’s clear that vaccines are only part of an effective response to fighting the pandemic. Along with continued vaccine development efforts, attention must also be given to antiviral drug development for people already infected with COVID-19. Due to the lengthy process for new drug development, early efforts focused on repurposing existing drugs.
COVID-19 cases are now being identified primarily among unvaccinated individuals, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, there has been increasing concern about so-called breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated individuals, particularly after the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant.
What is a breakthrough infection? The CDC defines it as “the infection of a fully vaccinated person.” The key finding remains that people with breakthrough infections are still far less likely to experience severe COVID-19 symptoms, in contrast with unvaccinated people; hence the importance of vaccination.
Globally, there have been over 5 million deaths attributed to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Throughout the ongoing battle against SARS-CoV-2, researchers have been studying the viral lineage and the variants that are emerging as the virus evolves over time. The more opportunities that the virus has to replicate (i.e., the more people it infects), the greater the likelihood that a new variant will emerge.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classify SARS-CoV-2 variants into four groups: Variants Being Monitored (VBM), Variants of Interest (VOI), Variants of Concern (VOC) and Variants of High Consequence (VOHC). So far, no variants in the US have been identified as VOHC or VOI. Currently, the most common variant in the US is the Delta variant (which includes the B.1.617.2 and AY viral lineages), and it is classified as a VOC.
The Delta variant originated in India and spread rapidly across the UK before making its way into the US (1). Current vaccines, including mRNA and adenoviral vector vaccines, have demonstrated effectiveness against the Delta variant. However, it is a VOC because it is more than twice as contagious as previous variants, and some studies have shown that it is associated with more severe symptoms.
A recent study (2) provides one explanation for the higher infectivity of the Delta variant, using an approach based on virus-like particles (VLPs). The research team was led by Dr. Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Nobel Prize winner for her work on CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, and Dr. Melanie Ott, director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology at the University of California–Berkeley.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory disease caused by a SARS-associated coronavirus. The most recent version, SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in China in the winter of 2019 and is responsible for the current COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) global pandemic. This virus and its variants have resulted in over 200 million infections and more than 4 million fatalities world-wide. To combat this deadly outbreak the global research community has responded with remarkable swiftness with the development of several vaccines and drug therapies, all produced in record time. In addition to vaccines and drug therapies, diagnostic kits and research reagents continue to roll out to track infections and to help find additional therapies.
This peer-reviewed paper published in Nature Scientific Reports by Alves and colleagues demonstrates how a new assay can be used to discover novel inhibitors that block the binding of SARS-CoV-2 to the human ACE2 receptor as well as study how mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein alter its apparent affinity towards human ACE2. The paper also details studies where the assay is used to detect the presence of neutralizing antibodies from both COVID-19 positive samples as well as samples from vaccinated individuals.
Clinical trials are arguably the backbone of medical advancement. But the trials most worth doing are usually large, costly and time-intensive, demanding extensive resources and personnel. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a marked uptick in the number of clinical trials, many of which are woefully flawed with issues ranging from insufficient sample size to bad design. The published research that follows is often redundant or inconclusive.
So how can scientists designing and running clinical trials streamline their efforts to reduce waste and achieve more useful outcomes? The answer could be adaptive clinical trials.
The pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 has brought the world to its knees. There have been many deaths, many persons with lingering disease (long COVID) and the inability to vaccinate everyone quickly, for starters. SARS-CoV-2 has not only been a tricky adversary in terms of treatment options to save lives, it’s also been a wily opponent to researchers studying the virus.
Contributing to the existing studies, with their review of the role of inflammasomes in COVID-19, Vora et al. recently published “Inflammasome activation at the crux of severe COVID-19” in Nature Reviews Immunology. In this paper they detail evidence of inflammasome activation and its role in SARS-CoV-2 infections.
Contributions of Those Lost in the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic I’d like to take a moment to note the uniquely awful nature of the virus at the center of this blog and the paper it reviews. Many of the papers we blog about describe research involving cell lines, mice or another animal model. The closest most reports get to human research subjects is the use of human cells lines. In the Vora et al. report, serum and tissue samples are from actual human patients, some that survived and many that did not survive COVID-19. It’s not lost on us, Dear Reader, the contributions of those that suffered and died due to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Many persons with severe or fatal COVID-19 have made a significant contribution to our understanding of this virus and its treatment options. We owe them, as well as the researchers that have studied SARS-CoV-2, our sincerest gratitude.
Why the Interest in Inflammasomes? For detailed information on inflammasomes you can read Ken’s blog, here. You will find background information there and on our inflammasome web page.
In their paper, Vora et al. provide evidence of inflammasome activation, both direct and indirect, in COVID-19. The authors note:
“Key to inflammation and innate immunity, inflammasomes are large, micrometrescale multiprotein cytosolic complexes that assemble in response to pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) or damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) and trigger proinflammatory cytokine release as well as pyroptosis, a proinflammatory lytic cell death.”
Wearing blue surgical gowns and white respirator hoods, research scientist Pradeep Uchil and post-doctoral fellow Irfan Ullah carry an anesthetized mouse to the lab’s imaging unit. Two days ago, the mouse was infected with a SARS-CoV-2 virus engineered to produce a bioluminescent protein. After an injection of a bioluminescence substrate, a blue glow starts to emanate from within the mouse’s nasal cavity and chest, visible to the imaging unit’s camera and Uchil’s eyes.
“We were never able to see this kind of signal with retrovirus infections.” Uchil is a research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine whose work focuses on the in vivo imaging of retroviral infections. Normally, the mouse would have to be sacrificed and “opened up” for viral bioluminescent signals from internal tissues to be imaged directly.
Most of us, after we flush the toilet, don’t think twice about our body waste. To us, it’s garbage. To epidemiologists, however, wastewater can provide valuable information about public health and help save lives.
History of Wastewater-Based Epidemiology
Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is the analysis of wastewater to monitor public health. The term first emerged in 2001, when a study proposed the idea of analyzing wastewater in sewage-treatment facilities to determine the collective usage of illegal drugs within a community. At the time, this idea to bridge environmental and social sciences seemed radical, but there were clear advantages. Monitoring wastewater is a nonintrusive and relatively inexpensive way to obtain real-time data that accurately reflects community-wide drug usage while ensuring the anonymity of individuals.
The Delta Variant poses a unique challenge to global health. We’ve compiled answers to some of the most common questions about Delta and other SARS-CoV-2 variants.
What is a variant?
A variant is a form of a virus that is genetically distinct from the original form.
“All organisms have mutation rates,” says Luis A Haddock, a graduate student at University of Wisconsin – Madison. “Unfortunately for us, viruses have one of the highest mutation rates of everything that currently exists. And even more unfortunately, RNA viruses have the highest mutation rates even among viruses.”
Luis works in the Friedrich Lab at UW-Madison, which has been sequencing SARS-CoV-2 genomes from positive test samples since the beginning of the pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 is constantly evolving, and sequencing can help us follow it through time and space. Most of the variants don’t behave any differently. A single nucleotide substitution might not even change the amino acid sequence of an encoded protein. However, occasionally a mutation will alter the structure or function of a protein.
The Brazilian state of Amazonas experienced two distinct waves of COVID-19 infections in 2020. After the first wave, a team from the University of Sao Paolo projected that the city of Manaus would reach the theoretical threshold for herd immunity by the end of the summer. However, a second COVID-19 wave erupted in December 2020, coinciding with the rise of Variant of Concern (VOC) P.1.
New research published in Nature Medicineexamined the different lineages of COVID-19 present in Brazil over time and determined that the two waves were driven by different variants. The first wave was driven by the variant B.1.195, which was imported from Europe in the spring. The second wave was largely driven by VOC P.1. The Nature Medicine study is the first to use viral sequences from samples collected throughout 2020 to explore the epidemiological and virological factors behind the two distinct COVID-19 waves.
Detecting VOC P.1 in Amazonas Samples
The researchers started by generating whole-genome sequences of 250 SARS-CoV-2 samples collected between March 2020 and January 2021. The survey showed that 20% of the sequences belonged to the B.1.195 lineage, and these mostly corresponded with the first exponential growth phase. 24% of the samples belonged to the P.1 lineage, and all of these samples corresponded with the rise of the second exponential growth phase. The largest share belonged to B.1.1.28 (37%), which replaced B.1.195 as the dominant variant in Brazil shortly after the first wave until the rise of VOC P.1.
The team also used real-time RT-PCR to analyze 1,232 positive samples collected in Amazonas between November 1, 2020 and January 21, 2021. The assay was designed to detect a deletion in NSP6, which is a signature mutation of VOC P.1. None of the samples collected before December 16 showed the NSP6 deletion, but it was common in samples starting in mid-December. Combining the two analysis methods, the team found the P.1 lineage in 0% of samples collected in November 2020, but by January 1-15 it was present in 73.8% of samples.
This data supports the theory that VOC P.1 first emerged in December 2020 and was the dominant lineage driving the second wave in Amazonas.
Two COVID-19 Waves: Virological and Epidemiological Factors
In addition to tracking the prevalence of lineages throughout the pandemic, the researchers also offered suggestions for how Amazonas experienced two distinct waves of COVID-19 infections.
Using computer modeling, the team found a significant reduction in reproductive efficiency (Re) of lineages B.1.195 and B.1.1.28 in April-May 2020, around the same time that Amazonas increased social distancing measures. Transmission rates remained low until the interventions were relaxed in September 2020. This suggests that the reduction in cases was not a result of herd immunity. Instead, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPI) limited the first wave and contained the spread through the summer.
Using real-time RT-PCR, the researchers found that the viral load of P.1 infections was nearly ten times the viral load of non-P.1 infection. They also referenced other research that found that VOC P.1 has a stronger affinity for the human receptor ACE2 than B.1.195 and B.1.1.28. P.1 is clearly a highly transmissible VOC, and it evolved in an ideal environment for rapid spread. Amazonas had relaxed social distancing measures by late 2020, P.1 was able to quickly reach extremely high infection rates.
The study did not directly address theories that P.1 evades immunity developed from prior infections, but they concluded that a combination of epidemiological and virological factors allowed P.1 to drive a second wave of COVID-19 in Amazonas starting in December.
The paper includes a supplementary note suggesting that NPIs instituted in Manaus in January 2021 significantly reduced transmission rates of VOC P.1. The team ends the paper by reiterating the importance of adequate social distancing measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 and prevent the emergence of new Variants of Concern.
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