BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: COVID-19 (Page 1 of 2)

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett…the brains behind it all

As the month of February is regarded as “Black History Month”, it allows us to reflect on and acknowledge those who put their lives on the line to better our safety and who don’t always get recognition. In regards to COVID-19, the deadly virus that struck the world last January, many have spent countless hours researching new therapeutics and vaccines that counter the symptoms of this deadly virus. We tend to gloss over the founders of research and key discoveries pertaining to COVID-19, and instead use these findings as signs of hope for ourselves for the future. As we sit cocooned in our homes and limit our exposure to the virus, first responders and researchers are working day and night to preserve our safety of this great nation. Meet Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a 34 year old researcher and scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Vaccine Research Center (VRC). Dr. Corbett is a highly prestigious African American women who was one of the leading scientists at the forefront of the COVID-19 vaccine development. She along with her colleagues paved the way into the development of the well-renowned Moderna vaccine.

Kizzmekia Corbett graduated from Maryland University and received a B.S. in Biological Sciences. She was a Meyerhoff Scholar, which is an aggressive program that mentors minorities and women in science. She was then enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she obtained her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology in 2014. Dr. Corbett then used her expertise to propel novel vaccine development for pandemic preparedness. When president Trump paid a visit to the NIH last March, the leads of the vaccine research center explained their life-saving mission. The focal point behind that mission was no other than Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. Two weeks after the president’s visit, Corbett’s team began their first stage of clinical trials. Corbett expressed that “they took a lot of the knowledge they have gained in the last six years and applied it to a vaccine platform in collaboration with Moderna…..The vaccine rolled out 10 months later”.

Dr. Corbett explains the vaccines effectiveness at the molecular level, as “the vaccine teaches the body how to fend off a virus, because it teaches the body how to look for the virus by basically just showing the body the spike protein of the virus….the body then says ‘Oh, we’ve seen this protein before. Let’s go fight against it”. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 6.5 million Americans have received the first dosage of the COVID-19 vaccine thanks to Dr. Corbett, and that number is expected to rise daily. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, credited Dr. Corbett by stating “The vaccine you are going to be taking was developed by an African American woman and that is just a fact”.

As we continue to reflect on inspirational African American men and woman around the world risking their lives to ensure our safety, let us take time to dig deeper into where these research discoveries come from. Let us not shroud the remarkable findings that scientists all around the world work endlessness to uncover. “In a time where vaccine skepticism is high among African Americans, Corbett hopes Black people will put faith in the vaccine and faith in the scientists working behind the scenes to bring it to the American people” states CBS news. If you are one of the fortunate people that have received this vaccine, maybe take some time to reflect on the countless hours of research that scientists such as Dr. Corbett experienced, because with out them the world would be a much different place.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Vaccine Visionary

Despite the recently-approved Moderna Covid-19 vaccine’s place at the forefront of many STEM-related discussions, the fact that a Black woman played an integral role in its development is comparatively underpublicized. During a month intended to celebrate both historical and current Black trailblazers, it is of the utmost importance that the American public properly recognize Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who – through both her illustrious career and her contributions to the vaccine – remains a fine example of Black excellence in science.

Portrait of Corbett

Per BlackPast, Corbett was born on January 26, 1986, in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina. Even at an early age, Corbett was considered by her mother (Rhonda Brooks) as a “sweet little, opinionated detective” due to her intellectual curiosity. While attending Hillsborough High School, she interned for numerous research labs and enrolled in ProjectSEED, a program dedicated to providing supplemental STEM courses for exemplary math and science students. During her summers off from UMBC (which she attended on a Meyerhoff scholarship), Corbett worked under the National Institute of Health alongside Dr. Barney Graham in studying the way that the respiratory syncytial virus develops in children. According to Graham, her ambition and desire for success were apparent from the start; upon his asking of what she wanted to accomplish in her life, Corbett informed him that “[she wanted his] job.” Soon after she earned her PhD and became a postdoctoral fellow of the NIH, Corbett started working on the creation of a vaccine to combat SARS and MERS, two coronavirus diseases. She and her team were responsible for identifying the spike protein of both viruses; as a result, she was asked to lead a team of scientists enlisted by Moderna to finish developing an effective mRNA-based vaccine (NOTE: Per the CDC, “mRNA vaccines contain material [from the SARS-CoV-2 virus] that gives our cells instructions for how to make a harmless protein that is unique to the virus. [Once] our cells make copies of the protein, they destroy the genetic material from the vaccine.” After recognizing that the protein is an invader, the body will create T-memory cells and B-memory cells, which are responsible for preventing re-infection). Luckily for the general public, her and her team’s efforts proved to be successful, as the Moderna vaccine has an impressively high efficacy rate. 

Corbett’s road to success wasn’t always easy; due to her race and gender, she was often deprived of a voice to share her research during times when it was desperately needed. Corbett was the only woman and Black person who was invited to now-former President Trump’s conference with leading figures of the NIH (including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Graham) regarding progress on the vaccine; according to NBC, no one at the meeting asked her a single question, despite her position as the head of the aforementioned scientific team leading the vaccine’s development. This treatment is not an anomaly: despite Graham’s stressing of the fact that Corbett is the leading expert on the project, many scientists around the globe defer to, direct questions to, and even double check her work with him instead. Even more egregious is the fact that Corbett is the subject of racist and sexist cyber abuse, as shown by this tweet telling her to “go back to McDonalds where [she belongs].”

Nevertheless, Corbett has made it clear (via an interview with Black Enterprise) that she never intends to change who she is and what motivates her in order to fit the expectations of the (increasingly diverse, but still largely white) STEM community. “I am Christian,” she says. “I’m Black. I am Southern, I’m an empath. I’m feisty, sassy, and fashionable. That’s kind of how I describe myself. I would say that my role as a scientist is really about my passion and purpose for the world and for giving back to the world.” By giving back to the world in such a formative way through her research, Corbett has proven that the growing desire for diversity in science is not just an option, but a necessity.

Why are there inequities for people of color in the healthcare system, specifically in the COVID-19 pandemic, and what are the solutions?

Throughout the past few months, the push for social justice has grown significantly. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have heard about the inequities for people of color. I have taken in interest in this topic through my psychology class as well as my portfolio project. In my psychology class was where I started to really learn what inequities emerging majorities face in the healthcare system, and as someone who is white I think it is so important to learn what some people go through. Though I will never understand what it is like, I want to do my best to understand and create change for those people. I would like to enter the healthcare field, so I want to educate myself on these problems within the healthcare system and strive to create solutions. 

In my portfolio project, where I focused on effectiveness and accessibility to COVID-19 testing, I researched an article that dove into a divide for people of color trying to be tested. These people were not able to go to drive-thru testing centers because they didn’t have a car, and therefore could not be tested. This is one of the problems that minorities have faced throughout the pandemic. 

This article focuses on the problems of emerging majorities during the past few months. According to the article, in New York City, black people and latinos have a mortality rate from COVID-19 that is 1.6 to 2 times higher than white people. In Arizona, 16% of the deaths are Native Americans. Many people who work in the healthcare system, as well as officials and the general public, are working to solve this issue. The article addresses specific reasons why these inequities exist. 

People of certain races, ethnicities, social position, and economic status could be more exposed to the virus because of their jobs, size of their family, child care, public transportation, etc. Some jobs don’t allow people to work from home and their children might be in child care. Some also rely on public transportation or live with many people at home. People who have faced poverty or discrimination often have chronic pychosocial stress that can eventually lead to inflammation. This develops a maladaptation that can cause an impaired response in the immune system to COVID-19. Unfortunately, these people may not have access to a primary care provider. To learn more about psychosocial stress I found an article that explains this in minorities. Oftentimes, minorities face stress because of economic status and not as much access and delivery to healthcare. Stress is associated with cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and inflammation.

Black leaders in the healthcare profession have proposed immediate solutions such as recording data for races and ethnicities, access to current treatments, mobile testing, and communication with leaders that are trusted. The Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) has worked to address these problems identifying and preventing inequities. They have created resources for COVID-19 to people who speak languages such as Arabic, Nepali, and Spanish. I didn’t realize that there were also inequities for people based on the language they spoke, so this was surprising to learn. I found an article that talks about inequities for Spanish speakers in healthcare. The article discussed how latino children who have limited English proficiency (LEP), are more likely to have compromised healthcare and parents have less communication with the provider which makes more dissatisfaction with the healthcare system. Although there are many inequities for people of color right now, there are so many solutions and people working to fix these problems. This relates to our goal in biology to learn about inequities in the healthcare system, especially during Black History Month.

 

Bias in Science: History, Representation, and Medicine

Science is not objective. Scientists may value fact, but they are still people too, influenced by identity and implicit and explicit biases in their research. Racism has pervaded every aspect of society since the country’s founding, and scientific institutions are no exception. From historical racist research practices to a modern reluctance to support Black Lives Matter or actively diversify the field, scientists have participated in and promoted racism for centuries. Scientists cannot claim objectivity now as an excuse to not be antiracist.

Throughout American history, unethical, racist research has contributed to scientific “progress”, but that is not regularly acknowledged. Although the past cannot be undone, fields should at least recognize the horrific means by which some research was done. For example, gynecology was borne of unethical experiments done on enslaved women and children. The “Tuskegee Experiment” withheld treatment of syphilis from hundreds of Black men just to see how the disease progressed. Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman with cervical cancer in 1951, had some cells taken from her tumor without being informed of this. The cells from her tumor, now known as HeLa cells, have been used since the 1950s for biomedical research. Since cancer is characterized by an improperly regulated cell cycle, with either too much cell growth or too little cell death, cancer cells can grow and divide excessively. This particular line of cells has been able to grow and divide endlessly, due to the presence of an active version of telomerase during cell division. This enzyme prevents the typical shortening of telomeres in cell division that leads to cell aging and death, making the cells “immortal” and the cell line usable to this day. Though they have been used in various research advances, her name was only connected to them in the 1970s. Her family, still with limited access to healthcare themselves, received no financial benefits and had no say in how the cells were used. Henrietta Lacks’ case is a more recent example of unethical research practices affecting Black people.

The questions scientists choose to study, whom they choose to include, and how they apply their results all bias research. Scientists of marginalized identities are much more likely to explore topics relevant to minority groups. So then, the lack of diversity among scientists also contributes to biased research priorities. In 2016, only 9% and 13.5% of science bachelors degrees were given to African Americans and Latinos respectively, and only 5% and 3.8% of doctoral degrees in science and engineering went to women and men from underrepresented minorities. Almost 70% of scientists and engineers employed full time are white. When issues like COVID-19 and climate change disproportionately affect marginalized groups, the lack of diverse representation can prevent representative research or solutions. Scientific institutions need to work on hiring and retention of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scientists, in part by creating less hostile work environments and increasing DEI efforts.

The lack of diversity in clinical trials also decreases the inclusivity of science and medicine. Even though about 40% of Americans are nonwhite or Hispanic, the clinical trials for new drugs tend to have much whiter samples, with some having 80 to 90% white participants. Since these drugs will be used to treat all people, diverse samples are needed to determine the efficacy and side effects that can vary across ethnicity and sex. The 1993 National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act that required greater inclusion of women and minorities in NIH research samples did improve the proportion of female subjects, but not so much for minority groups. Even for diseases that disproportionately affect marginalized groups, those groups are grievously underrepresented in the clinical trials. 

One such disease is COVID-19. Even though the rates of infection, severity, and death are greater for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans, these groups are underrepresented in clinical trials. Trials for drugs to treat COVID-19 did not accurately reflect the most affected populations at the research sites. Some studies also did not report the race and ethnicity of participants as required by the FDA. Remdesivir has shown to somewhat decrease recovery time, but since disease severity and outcomes are worse for minority groups, the benefits of improvement may not necessarily extend to them. This is why proportional representation of affected populations is so important in clinical trials for drugs.

One cause for lack of diversity in clinical trials is that minority groups can be unwilling or unable to take part, for reasons including fear of discrimination, lack of time or resources, inaccessibility of recruitment centers, language barriers, and fear of exploitation based in historical precedent. However, these barriers should be on the researchers to address, not on the marginalized groups. A possible solution could be to have the FDA enforce that drugs should be tested on samples that demographically reflect the populations that will be using them.

In the end, research institutions and scientists need to examine their biases in order to determine who they are serving, and then who they mean to serve. Efforts to increase diversity cannot be passive, but instead should involve active recruitment and work to eliminate the barriers in place. In an academic institution, that might mean a more inclusive work environment and better outreach and mentorship programs. For clinical trials, this could be reducing the financial burden of participation and building better relationships with minority communities that may have been hurt in the past. Science is meant to help people, so we need to be better moving forward, as well as acknowledge the damage scientists have done in the past.

COVID-19 and Environmental Racism: A Fatal Pair

        In his article “Environmental Racism Has Left Black Communities Especially Vulnerable to COVID-19” published by The Century Foundation, Caesar Berkovitz speaks of research surrounding environmental racism, air pollution, and their impacts on vulnerable populations concerning COVID-19. After outlining the pre-existing inequalities that harm Black individuals during the pandemic (increased risk of exposure due to work hours, disparities in wealth-income, and racism within the healthcare system), he goes into the meaning of residential and environmental racism. Environmental Injustice regards inequality in poor or communities of color that increases exposure to pollution and health risks. Environmental injustice is often paired with minimal environmental protection and environmental quality through government regulations. One aspect of environmental injustice regards the disparity in the location of pollution and bad air quality. Due to the pre-existing residential segregation, often Black individuals are placed in communities that have lower property value, and therefore a lower price on the industrial market. With more industrial factories, highways, shopping malls, and businesses in Black communities, air pollution worsens, decreasing the physical health of those who live there, hence a form of environmental injustice is created. Wealth disparities have allowed white community members to buy property away from these areas such as rivers used for dumping trash, and areas with landfills. Many individuals in these environmentally challenged neighborhoods also do not have a large legislative presence- often financial power comes with political power. 

        Air pollution has also been found to have links to lung cancer. For example, China is a country with a high lung cancer rate. Despite the low smoking prevalence, the large exposure individuals have to air pollution has created around 260,000 lung cancer cases in Chinese women annually. When cells are damaged, altered, or there are changes in their DNA (which can be caused by air pollution), they can become a defective part of the body system. These damaged cells then divide through mitosis without receiving the proper signals at the mitosis checkpoints. Once they do so, they continue to divide and they can create clumps of cells called a tumor. Once cancer cells metastasize, they spread through the blood vessels and they can move through the body to spread cancer to other parts.

        So, you may ask, “how does this all apply to COVID-19?”. Well, when pollution from fossil fuel and industrial emissions are released into the atmosphere, PM 2.5 (or carcinogen) is released with it. The tiny particles of Carcinogen have been proven in a study by Harvard University to increase health risks when someone gets the COVID-19 virus. After looking at more than 3,000 countries all over the world, researchers in this study found that individuals who lived over a decade in a county or place with high levels of PM 2.5 (in comparison to the rest of the world) are 8% more likely to die from COVID-19. Therefore, adding another layer to environmental injustice, with increased pollution from environmental racism comes a higher fatality rate for individuals living in these areas from COVID-19. 

        “Wait, but I thought the environment was getting better because pollution and emissions were decreasing during the pandemic?”. This statement is true, but it doesn’t overpower the pre-existing exposure of pollution present within populations that experience environmental racism. A study done by CREA (Center for Research on Clean Energy and Clean Air), found that due to the lack of oil and coal production and demand, 11,000 air pollution-related deaths have been avoided in Europe, and there has been a 40% reduction in average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution. However, as CREA also found, the net presence of PM2.5 and NO2 in the atmosphere is increasing- Tangshan, south Hebei, and Shanxi, China for example exceeded their pollution levels from last year.

 

Photo with “no filter” taken by someone in Taipei, Taiwan where the PM 2.5 level was 152.

         Solving environmental racism includes untangling a web of pre-existing inequitable environmental, social justice, and healthcare legislation- there is no one clear solution. Caesar Berkovitz suggests that both pre-existing improvements and new changes can be made. He argues increasing funding of the Housing Choice Voucher Program at the federal level and increasing rental assistance programs would help reduce residential injustice. In addition to that, one of the main problems many towns face concerning building affordable housing is the “zoning town boards’ ‘ which approve or disapprove the development. Improving the structure of zoning town boards to ensure that at all times, both sides of the community are voiced in the discussion would be a step towards reducing residential inequalities. Redlining and inefficient zoning boards within towns should be the main focus, as it is the root of the unfortunate placement of the individuals harmed by environmental injustice. Increasing federal transportation funds to create the equitable street design and increasing funding for public transformation to reduce fossil fuel emissions from cars as Berkovitz mentions is also another option. Since environmental injustice covers a wide range of legislation and areas, there are various platforms and ways in which humans can help fight it. As we reach what seems like the end of the pandemic, what do you think would be the best solution to fighting environmental injustice? Comment down below! 

The Truth Behind Health Disparities: COVID-19 Edition

As the coronavirus continues, there have been some notable statistics that highlight pre-existing health disparities for many. In an article written by CDC, the terms “health disparities” and “racial and ethnic groups” are connected to one another. In this blog post, I’m going to dig deeper into the “social determinants of health” and discuss correlations between certain factors of these determinants.

It’s been noticed even before COVID-19 that certain racial and ethnic groups have an increased risk of getting sick and dying. Now with the global pandemic, the factors that cause this increased risk need to be addressed before more thousands of hundreds of people contract the virus.

We first need to understand what discrimination means, as it plays a huge role in the spread of COVID-19 in these groups. Discrimination comes in many shapes and forms including but not limited to these factors: health care, housing, education, and occupation/ finance. When particular racial and ethnic groups are discriminated against for all of the above, they are placed in social and economic situations that are more prone to falling at the hands of COVID-19. Inequities in access to quality education for some racial and ethnic groups can lead to lower high school completion and issues with college entrance. This may limit future job options and lead to lower-paying or less stable jobs. People may not be able to afford the proper healthcare (this can be due to income or even direct discrimination from healthcare companies). This leads to segregated spread due to geography and demographics. When these ethnic and racial groups are discriminated against when it comes to housing, this creates a lot more issues than realized. In this article, there are comparative data studies that highlight certain parts of many states that are known to be predominantly a certain ethnic or racial group. Having compared neighboring towns of majority race and ethnicity, these areas have been proven to have higher deaths from COVID-19. This is because these ethnic or racial groups may have not had access to the proper health care or live in crowded conditions that make it more challenging to follow prevention strategies. It may also be the case where some ethnic families live with their elders as part of their culture. These dangerous conditions of living together as a grouped town will increase the infection rate and spread of COVID. As seen, all of these factors are connected not only to racial and ethnic groups but also to each other. These factors all add up to the thousands of deaths that fall to COVID-19.

To conclude, this leaves us with the question of what can we do? Of course, as we learned from some of our peers’ COVID-19 portfolio, there are traditional and effective COVID-19 precautions that include social distancing, sanitizing, protection (masks), etc. As science grows, we need to learn to be less prejudiced against those around us. This issue of health disparity of racial and ethnic minorities has been occurring for years. COVID-19 did not create this health disparity, it only emphasized how much needs to be actually changed. This article, which I stumbled upon, really went into depth more on the pre-existing health disparities that we have chosen to ignore. COVID-19 has now opened the eyes of many to see that these health disparities range from the differences in racial and ethnic Breast Cancer treatment, maternal care, and even dental care, which most have incorrectly deemed insignificant in the world of health.

We must change. We can find ways to support everyone, even when physically apart. We need to stop the discrimination that has occurred and start empowering and encouraging the community and the people within to protect themselves and their loved ones. We can care for those who become sick, keep kids healthy, and learn how to better cope with stress. Of course, community- and faith-based organizations, employers, healthcare systems and providers, public health agencies, policymakers have their work cut out for them as well. The key is the promotion of fair access to healthcare now. Much can be done to ensure that people have the resources to maintain and manage their physical and mental health. Suggestions include making information on COVID-19 more accessible, more affordable testing, and medical health care. We need to start paying more attention to fix our society and our health disparities to prevent the spread of COVID before more lives are lost.

 

It’s in the Air – The transmission of COVID-19

Since the start of this global pandemic in March, a major issue has been the lack of knowledge on the virus. It has been the job of scientists to research and informs the general public of the virus. As more research has been conducted, we have a better understanding of the virus and its effects. The most important part of stopping the virus though is understanding how the virus is transmitted.

What is Covid-19? 

Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2. This virus took America by storm, killing almost 350 thousand Americans. This disease cause mild to moderate respiratory illness in healthy patients with no medical problems. In older people with health issues, this becomes an extremely serious illness. Health problems that put people at a risk include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer. The virus is transmitted three main ways.

Contact Transmission

The first way the virus is spread is by contact transmission. Contact transmission is an infection spread through direct contact with an infectious person. For example, shaking someone’s hand, high-fiving someone, or touching a surface that someone infected has touched.

Droplet transmission

Another way the virus spreads is by droplet transmission. Droplet transmission is the spread through respiratory droplets that contain the virus. This type of transmission usually occurs when someone is within six feet of an infected person. For example, if you are sitting in the car with someone who is infected without your mask for too long, you will probably end up with the virus due to droplet transmission. This is the reason masks are so essential to stopping the spread of this virus.

Airborne Transmission

The last way this virus spreads is through airborne transmission. Airborne transmissions similar to droplet transmission, but airborne transmission contains smaller droplets and particles that travel distances longer than six feet. This is dangerous because the guideline that everyone follows is six feet apart but the virus can actually travel further than that and still be dangerous.

How to stop the spread?

Wearing your mask and social distancing is the most important thing to do when trying to stop the spread of Covid-19. SARS-CoV-2 enters the body preferably through the mouth and nose. After that, it enters your cells by binding to the receptor on the cell membrane and begins to reproduce. Masks are a physical barrier between our noses and mouths, preventing the droplets that cause the virus to be released or inhaled. Masks are essential in this fight against the virus so we all need to do our part so we can return to some sort of normalcy in 2021.

What face mask should you go buy?

When you are leaving your house, how do you decide what mask to wear that day? Have you tried different kinds? Masks have become a new part of our daily life. We all have to wear masks in social situations or anywhere out in public in order to prevent ourselves and others from contracting coronavirus. In the past few months, there have been many different types of masks that are being sold. Some even have super cool designs, and some are more comfortable than others. So, when you are picking a mask, do you stop and think about which one is the most effective at doing its job of protecting you?

Overview on Masks and the protection

The article from Healthline explores the variety of masks, and discusses the usefulness. In general, masks are an essential preventative measure to take as it reduces the risk of transmission of Covid-19, along with the other protective measures, such as distancing and proper hygiene. The purpose of masks are to protect oneself from the respiratory droplets from traveling into the air. It is especially important to protect yourself in public because around 80% of the coronavirus transmission has been rooted from asymptomatic carriers. An asymptomatic carrier is someone who has contracted the Coronavirus, but has no symptoms of the virus. However, asymptomatic people can still spread the virus.  By wearing a mask, one is able to prevent the airborne transmission of the coronavirus pathogens through our bodies primary defenses such as the mouth, nose and the eyes. Since the coronavirus pathogens are able to get past the barrier defenses if you do not wear a mask and take other preventative measures, this triggers innate cellular defenses, which lead to the inflammatory response in our body, such as fevers, colds and more. Inner surface is lined with tiny hairs cilia or mucus membranes which trap pathogens and can be removed by sneezing or coughing or swallowed to be broken down by stomach acids.

Surgical Masks and Valve Masks

Surgical masks are disposable, single use masks that cover your mouth and nose. They are made out of a breathable synthetic fabric. There is not a airtight seal around the area it covers, and there has been a large range on how the surgical masks filter pathogens. Respirators have intense filters that filter the pathogens in the air. These are also airtight, unlike the surgical masks. Some of the respirator masks have valves which lets some exhaled air to escape. The downside to this is that it does not protect others from pathogens exhaled through the valves. This is because the valves in the mask allow respiratory droplets from the person wearing the mask out into the air and get to other people.

N95 Respirator Masks

N95 masks can protect one from particles as small as 0.3 microns. N95 masks are extremely effective in preventing airborne particles from entering through the areas of the nose and mouth. The name “N95” comes from the fact that the respirator blocks 95% of small and large particles out. The ‘N’ is the respirator rating class. The ‘N’ stands for “non oil”, so basically no oil based particulates are present. The filtering and protection is much higher than a surgical or a cloth mask.

Homemade and store bought Cloth Masks

Masks that many people make at home are considered to be the least effective as the fabric is less secure and allows for small droplets to enter inside the mask. Also, many of these cloth masks have gaps near the nose, jaw or mouth area that also be areas where the droplets can be inhaled by the person wearing the mask. If you do wear a mask made at home, use 100% cotton fabric, which is the most effective material for cloth masks. Now, most stores are selling all different kinds of cloth masks. In general, all cloth masks vary with effectiveness as they are constructed with different fits, materials, and layers which all effect filtration. But, overall, store bought masks have had better securely fitting masks, which is very important in wearing a face mask for protection to properly cover the nose and mouth. If you are buying a cloth mask from a store, look for cloth masks that come with a nose wire and a filter insert which upgrade the masks. Overall though, whether it is homemade or store bought, surgical and n95 masks are more effective than both in protecting the wearer.

Overall, a key factor in any mask usage is how you wear the mask. Have you caught yourself accidentally letting the mask slip off your nose, and not doing anything about it? The proper usage is extremely important in having the masks be effective and prevent ourselves from getting the virus. We are in a very critical time, and the least we can all do is wear a mask to protect ourselves, others and lower the spread of the virus. We can all help reduce transmission! Be sure to wear a mask and be safe!

PCR? Rapid? Antibody? Are these tests really accurate? Here is your guide to Covid-19 testing

As we are entering what seems to be a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, how should we approach getting tested and should we be relying on our results? 

According to the article written by John Ingold of the Colorado Sun, there are many tests that are used to test traces of SARS-CoV-2 but knowing when and what you are taking is crucial to stop the spread.  Covid-19 is a severe acute respiratory syndrome that has quickly caused a global pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 is a single stranded RNA-enveloped virus that contains spike proteins that allow viruses to penetrate host cells and cause infection. These spike proteins are divided up into two subunits, the S1 subunit and the S2 subunit. Once the S1 subunit binds to host cell receptors, two changes must occur for the S2 subunit to complete the fusion of the virus to the cell membrane. To test for coronavirus, the FDA has approved 170 different diagnostic tests and 47 blood tests for the virus. These tests are now being given out nationwide so they are more accessible to everyone but studies have questioned the accuracy of these tests. However, due to the numerous amounts of tests, it is crucial to know the differences and to learn which tests are right for your specific situations.

Blood Tests vs Diagnostic Tests

Blood tests, which are also called serological tests, test the blood for antibodies. Antibodies are indicators that your body has produced a immune response to the virus. The immune system protects the body against pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. In this case, the innate immunity is used to fight off Covid-19. Innate immunity is a defense that is active immediately upon infection. It is the first and second lines of defense and is a very rapid response. B cells within your body react to invading pathogens which causes the antibody to control the infection. These blood tests are usually used to test whether you have been previously infected by the virus but will occasionally detect whether you have the virus at that moment.

Diagnostic tests use other types of bodily fluids such as nasal mucus or saliva to test for an active infection. As you may have seen, they use long Q-tip swabs to swab the inside of your nose or mouth which they then send to a lab.

Sensitivity vs Specificity

When telling whether or not a test is accurate you must keep in mind the sensitivity and the specificity of the test.

Sensitivity tells whether or not the test is able to accurately detect the presence of an active virus. The less amount of sensitivity, the higher chance of receiving a false negative.

Specificity tells whether or not the test is able to accurately rule out the presence of an active virus. The less amount of specificity, the higher chance of receiving a false positive.

A guide to testing: 

Antibody Tests: As stated previously, antibody tests tend to be more sensitive than they are specific. The FDA found that most antibody tests have sensitivity values near 100% but specificity values near mid-90’s. This leads to an increase in false positives. The FDA also found that in some antibody tests, the positive predicting values are under 60% which means that it is very possible that there is a 50% percent chance that you actually have them and a 50% chance you don’t. Ultimately, these tests are sometimes quite unreliable.

PCR Tests: The PCR test, polymerase chain reaction, is a test that searches for the virus’ genetic material. The PCR test increases the genetic material so that it reaches detectable levels. These tests are administered by Q-tip swaps and take a few days to process them. The PCR is considered the most accurate test available and many say that if you have symptoms or have been exposed, this is the test for you.

Rapid Tests: Rapid tests have become increasingly common as they are faster and more consumer-friendly. However, scientists warn people that they are best used to determine if your cold is actually a cold or if it is Covid-19. If you are asymptomatic, they suggest a PCR test. Emily Travanty, interim director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s state and public health lab, warns that the rapid test is significantly less sensitive which in case may lead to false negatives.

Antigen Tests: Antigen tests for the virus by looking for which specific proteins are on the surface of the virus. These tests are highly specific so are unlikely to deliver false positives and more likely to give false negatives. If you are being tested repeatedly, antigen tests are the best for you. However, if you are only getting tested occasionally, you should get a PCR test in order to confirm your results.

By knowing which type of test you should get in your specific situation, you are helping the cause of stopping the spread. As we enter what many people are starting the call the “second wave” it is crucial to get tested constantly in order to protect those we love. (Note that if you have been exposed it is recommended to isolate for a week at home before getting tested as the the virus needs time to accumulate. Testing too rapidly will increase your chance of getting a false negative.)

Mutation in the Nation

We constantly think of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a single virus, one enemy that we all need to work together to fight against. However, the reality of the situation is the SARS-CoV-2, like many other viruses, is constantly mutating. Throughout the last year, over 100,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes have been studied by scientists around the globe. And while when we hear the word mutation, we imagine a major change to how an organism functions, a mutation is just a change in the genome. The changes normally change little to nothing about how the actual virus functions. While the changes are happening all the time since the virus is always replicating, two viruses from anywhere in the world normally only differ by 10 letters in the genome. This means that the virus we called SARS-CoV-2 is not actually one species, but is a quasi-species of several different genetic variants of the original Wuhan-1 genome.

The most notable mutation that has occurred in SARS-CoV-2 swapped a single amino acid in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. This caused SARS-CoV-2 to become significantly more infective, but not more severe. It has caused the R0 of the virus, the number of people an infected person will spread to, to go up. This value is a key number in determining how many people will be infected during an outbreak, and what measures must be taken to mitigate the spread. This mutation is now found in 80% of SARS-CoV-2 genomes, making it the most common mutation in every infection.

Glycoproteins are proteins that have an oligosaccharide chain connect to them. They serve a number of purposes in a wide variety of organisms, one of the main ones being the ability to identify cells of the same organism.  The spike protein is a glycoprotein that is found on the phospholipid bilayer of SARS-CoV-2 and it is the main tool utilized in infecting the body. The spike protein is used to bind to host cells, so the bilayers of the virus fuse with the cell, injecting the virus’s genetic material into the cell. This is why a mutation that makes the spike protein more efficient in binding to host cells can be so detrimental to stopping the virus.

In my opinion, I find mutations to be fascinating and terrifying. The idea that the change of one letter in the sequence of 30,000 letters in the SARS-CoV-2 genome can have a drastic effect on how the virus works is awfully daunting. However, SARS-CoV-2 is mutating fairly slowly in comparison to other viruses, and with vaccines rolling out, these mutations start to seem much less scary by the day.

 

Comparing Saliva Tests to Nasopharyngeal Swabs

Although many college campuses have closed within the past couple of weeks, for the few months they were in session, the general public was introduced to a new procedure for COVID-19 testing: Saliva tests. There are multiple reasons why a saliva test would be more ideal for campuses to use, and it’s not just because the nasopharyngeal swab testing is extremely uncomfortable.

A nasopharyngeal swab is basically a biological term for the COVID-19 test that goes all the way up your nose. News-Medical actually came out with an article going through the testing procedure, and how the SARS-CoV-2 is detected. The purpose of the swab test is to reach the nasopharynx, which is where nonpathogenic and pathogenic bacteria and viruses lie. It’s also used to test the flu and pneumonia. In fact, UC Davis published that they have just come up with a rapid test that could detect both the flu and COVID-19 in one nasopharyngeal test. This makes it the most convenient method, but it’s more expensive; making this harder to upscale for mass testing). It also requires more supplies, and puts health care workers in close contact with infected individuals. Saliva tests would be a lower cost, but there was uncertainty in its accuracy. The Scientist highlights three main experiments that help better our understanding of saliva testing.

The first experiment was led by Yale epidemiologist, Anne Wylie. Wylie and her colleagues tested the accuracy of swab testing using 70 suspected COVID-19 patients admitted to the Yale-New Haven Hospital. They found that saliva samples contained more copies of the SARS-CoV-2 than swabs. The group concluded by saying that they see potential in the saliva swab; however, this was only tested in one controlled area, and the patients at this point were showing symptoms.

The second experiment, led by Mathieu Natcher, took place throughout the French Guiana. There were 776 participants ranging from (wealthier) villages, forests, and more poor neighborhoods. Natcher discovered that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was still present within saliva for a long period of time, despite climbing temperatures, which makes this idea for situations where testing needs to happen in areas where temperature can’t be regulated. The one downside noticed during this experiment was that saliva testing was less sensitive than nasopharyngeal swabs, which means that it can be harder to pick up the bacteria, if there is less in their system. Therefore, saliva testing may not always be as efficient for asymptomatic carriers or people who just became infected.

Pharmacologist at the University of South Carolina helped develop the school’s saliva test, and reported her findings after school came back in session. She noticed that although saliva may be less sensitive, the repetition of testing these students makes it more possible to catch the infection shortly after it comes. She also ran an experiment on two students living together: one of which had a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, and the other was at risk. Both students got tested daily using the nasopharyngeal and saliva swabs for the two weeks. She found that the amount of the virus detected in both tests for the positive patient were the same, leading her to conclude that saliva and nasopharyngeal tests both have the same sensitivity. Banister also explained that not the lower sensitivity coming from the saliva test in comparison to the nasopharyngeal test could be due to the fact that saliva turns over quickly in the mouth, while the nasal cavity and lungs hold the virus for longer. Banister also said because of this saliva tests might be a more accurate depiction of who is actually infectious, because the virus stays in the lungs even after the patient is no longer infectious.

We have come a long way since this article was initially posted, and saliva tests have been released to more of the public for a longer period of time. It is interesting to see how these preliminary tests played a role in whether or not to further release saliva tests.

Restaurants: A COVID-19 Hotspot

After spending months locked in our homes, eager for social interaction, you may find yourself wanting to justify grabbing a quick bite with a friend despite the risk of COVID-19. However, this MIT Technology Review article proves that not only are restaurants the riskiest location when it comes to the coronavirus, but you are actually four times more likely to catch the virus in a restaurant than in the gym, which is the second most dangerous location.

Safegraph, a company that collects anonymous location data from smartphones, curated a team of epidemiologists, computer scientists, and social scientists from Stanford University and Northwestern University. Together, Safegraph and their new team used smartphone data to predict and understand where most people were catching COVID-19. To do this, researchers tracked nearly 100 million people through their phones in 10 of the biggest US cities from March 1 to May 1, collecting the movements of people going to gyms, grocery stores, restaurants, places of worship, etc. 

After accumulating this smartphone data, they used it to predict the level of risk each location had based on three categories: “how big the venue was, how long people stayed inside it, and how many people were likely to be infectious in the given area.” After comparing their predictions to the official records of cases, it was proven that their new prediction model was accurate. Like one may have already guessed: the smaller the venue is, the longer people stay inside it, and the larger the number of people inside the venue are all of the factors that make a location more dangerous when it comes to catching COVID-19.

Epidemiology has proved that the three factors stated above make someone more susceptible to getting COVID-19 because the virus spreads most prominently through respiratory droplets. These droplets can be spread through breathing, talking, eating, etc. In restaurants, people don’t wear masks, allowing these respiratory droplets to infect everyone around them, as they can land on surfaces as well as drift through the air. Another danger with restaurants and not wearing a mask is being asymptomatic: unknowingly contracting the virus, having no symptoms, and then going to restaurants, where you take your mask off, allowing the virus to spread to all those around you. 

Eating, talking, breathing, and possibly even laughing are almost all guaranteed when going out to eat. However, those are all the primary methods by which respiratory droplets spread. 

If you acquire an asymptomatic or mild coronavirus case, research suggests that your immune system works the same as it normally would for other viruses. When you come in contact with COVID-19, your innate immune system immediately reacts; it is the first line of defense in your immune system and releases a rapid response. This quick response is nonspecific, meaning that it is recognized as simply a pathogen, with minimal specifics. As that rapid response begins, your adaptive immunity begins to develop and form antibodies to fight the specific virus you are infected with. Because this response is more specific to the virus you have, it is also slower acting, which is why viruses take days or weeks to recover from. 

Anyway, going back to the research: Using this new prediction model, the research team simulated different restaurant situations, such as 10% capacity, 50% capacity, and even full capacity. The model suggested that implementing a 20% maximum capacity in restaurants would cut infection rates by 80%. However, from an economic standpoint, a 20% maximum capacity would result in a likely loss of 42% of customers during “peak hours.”

So, it is crucial to think about what is more important: minimizing infection rates or keeping businesses alive? Personally, I think it is necessary to find a balance where people can stay safe, and businesses can remain open, especially small ones. Restaurants have already begun thinking of safe and innovative ways to dine. For example, a restaurant in NYC has an outdoor patio with large, private pods where groups of people can eat out without exposure to the people around them. Though even this system has its loopholes and issues, it is a step in the right direction. 

Will you be going out to eat this week? 

The Reoccurring Virus?

The spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes Covid-19, which is more notoriously known as the coronavirus, has been deemed by some to be one of the worst pandemics ever seen. With over 13.5 million cases and over 200 thousand deaths, the pandemic has taken the world by storm. In an article, Jop de Vrieze speaks on a topic that is of concern in regards to the subsiding of this virus, the topic of reinfection.

In our body, antibodies are our natural defenders. These antibodies are part of the body’s adaptive response to pathogens. Generally, B Lymphocytes(B cells) binds to an antigen and recognize it. T-Helper cells then cause the selected B cells to divide into B-Plasma cells and B-Memory cells. The B-Plasma cells then secrete antibodies which bind to the pathogen and then neutralize it, allowing Macrophages to engulf and destroy the antibody-covered pathogen. B-Memory cells help the cell be able to remember the pathogen, ultimately preventing reinfections. Antibodies are defined by Mayo Clinic as “proteins produced by your immune system in response to an infection. Your immune system — which involves a complex network of cells, organs and tissues — identifies foreign substances in your body and helps fight infections and diseases.” When you contract the virus, your body develops these antibodies that can help provide protection. But there’s a catch. The CDC says that ” we do not know how much protection the antibodies may provide or how long this protection may last,” which opens up the possibility for reinfection.

Specific to de Vrieze’s article, a man in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus in March and tested positive again in August, becoming the first official reinfection case. Neurologists have, reasonably, expected much milder symptoms from reinfection cases, but that hasn’t been the case for some. As the CDC stated, the amount of protection and the protection’s longevity is still a big question. The leading case in de Vrieze’s article was that of Sanne de Jong. After having the virus and mild symptoms in Mid-April, she tested negative in May and then tested positive again in June. What is so special about her “reinfection” case is that when her virus samples were taken, they were very similar. This is of significance because it correlates to another, yet more unlikely, theory mentioned in the article. When the article was written, “no proof exists of mutations that would make the virus more pathogenic or that might help the virus evade immunity. But a recent preprint by a team at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle suggests one may exist. The team describes a person who was infected in March and reinfected four months later. The second virus had a mutation common in Europe that causes a slight change in the virus’ spike protein, which helps it break into human cells. Although symptoms were milder the second time, neutralization experiments showed antibodies elicited by the first virus did not work well against the second, the authors note, ‘which could have important implications for the success of vaccine programs.'”
The possibility of reinfection is rare but is still very possible. And other mysteries of the coronavirus are still present. Here is my advice: Play it safe. With the uncertainty and danger surrounding the virus, the best thing we can do is prevent the spread and protect ourselves and others. The need for concern can pass if we are simply patient.

Santa isn’t bringing coal this year, he’s bringing Covid!! How to stay safe this winter.

Some feel that the Christmas spirit isn’t floating in the air this holiday season, but rather fear of the corona virus, and how it will be handled this winter. With temperatures dropping as fast as these store prices on sale, many worry how will the U.S stop cases from spiking as much as it did earlier this year? Don’t miss out on your favorite blogger Monoseanarides’ holiday special.

Spread (Overview)-

SARS-CoV-2 is a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus that spreads in multiple different ways. The virus can be spread through small particles or respiratory droplets (ex. aerosols created by the cough, sneeze, speech, and breaths of a Covid-infected patient). Once these particles are in the air, they are inhaled through the mouth or nose and enter the lungs and airways which is believed to be the most common form of infection. Droplet particles that have landed on surfaces can cause the virus to spread by touch. Once someone has touched an infected surface the disease can spread to them by touching their mouth, nose, or eyes. Spread by touch is not a primary way of transmission. When spending time with someone who has not been tested you should not be within 6 feet or 2 arms lengths of the person. Something to look out for during this pandemic is Community Spread. This is a term coined for an area where multiple people are infected with the virus and not everyone knows where the virus was contracted from. To inquire on whether or not there is a local community spread near you contact your local health department’s website. There are still a lot of questions regarding the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus including whether or not warm weather slows down the spread of the virus, and cold weather periods are where the virus spreads most like the flu virus? There is still a lot of research to be done on the virus and there is no permanent answer, but it is safe to assume that cases will start to spike again during the winter because that is when sicknesses like the flu spread best. Another question frequently asked is whether or not the virus can be spread through mosquitos and ticks like other illnesses such as the Zika virus or Lyme Disease. As of now there has been no evidence proving that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be spread from person to person through the bite of a mosquito or a tick.

Spread (A closer look)

For all my crazy biology fans like me no need to worry I’m going to explain to you guys how the SARS-CoV-2 virus infects healthy cells. When a SARS-Cov-2 virus enters your body it latches onto one of your healthy cells’ receptors using its spiked protein surface, it usually latches to a healthy cell in the lungs. The viral proteins latch through the ACE2 receptors. The virus then travels down your respiratory tract to your lower airway where the most ACE2 receptors are present. This can cause your lungs to swell, which can make it harder to breathe. These complications can often lead to pneumonia. Once pneumonia is formed patients go into ARDS, however this only occurs in severe cases.

How the body responds-

Normally when a virus enters the body the automatic response mechanism used is innate immunity. Innate immunity is a defense activated immediately after infection. Innate Immunity is the first and second lines of defense because it is a rapid response. After the innate immunity is activated the adaptive immunity is activated. This response is slower because its job is to fight off any extra infected cells and memorize the virus so that the body is prepared for another infection. It has been seen with the SARS-CoV-2 virus (usually in older people) that cytokine storms occur when parts of the immune system overwork or works harder than other parts of the immune system.

Could Rapid Testing Be the Key to Beating COVID-19?

A study published by University of Colorado Boulder and Harvard University researchers, states that rapid tests could help the world come close to eliminating COVID-19. The study focused on whether sensitivity of the tests, or turnaround times of getting the results is more important. By using mathematical formulas, different scenarios and three locations (a 10,000 person population, a university setting and in a large city) they came to conclude that when trying to slow the spread, frequency of testing and turnaround time is more important than the sensitivity of the test.

It is important to note the difference between the PCR test and the rapid antigen test. A PCR test, which uses polymerase chain reaction technology (hence the name) to detect traces of the virus’ genetic material. A rapid antigen test does not trace the genetic material but instead looks for specific proteins on the surface of the virus, known as antigens. A PCR test can detect one SARS-CoV-2 RNA molecule for a positive test result, the rapid antigen test needs thousands of virus particles for a positive test result. An antigen is present on the outside of a pathogen. In adaptive response to pathogens, dendritic cells place these antigens on display. The antigens are what allows the T-helper cells to recognize the antigen and trigger the cell mediated and humoral response. Therefore, if your body is fighting against COVID-19, the antigens would be displayed on cells and the rapid test may recognize them.

In one of the scenarios a large city had widespread rapid testing two times a week and they reduced the infections by 80% compared to widespread PCR testing done two times a week that only reduced infection by 58%. This scenario shows that because two thirds of infected people do not show symptoms as they wait for their results they are not quarantining. If people receive the positive tests results sooner, they can self-isolate sooner.

People have felt hesitant about rapid testing since it is less accurate than PCR testing and may miss cases where levels of infected particles are too low. However, it has been shown that there is a short time period where PCR testing will show a positive, and rapid tests won’t. This is because infected particles can go from 5,000 to 1 million in less than 24 hours. During this short window of time it is also likely that the patient is not contagious yet. 

Personally, I think that having more accessible rapid tests will be a huge help to curbing the virus. Even with less sensitivity, if a person tests positive then they self-isolate up to up to 48 hours quicker, if tests results take longer, then even more. This means that less people will get infected. I know that when family members have gotten tested, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, tests took 5 days when the labs were backed up. If they had not been properly quarantined during the 5 days, this could pose a danger to others. Therefore, I think that the accuracy can be put aside for the speed of the test results.

So, what do you think? Is rapid testing the inexpensive, fast, key piece to curbing the infection rate, or is the accuracy of tests more important?

COVID-19 May Be Behind Dangerous Blood Clots in Patients

According to an article by Erin Garcia de Jesus, a new study shows that some of COVID-19’s lethal blood clots may originate from the immune system attacking the patient’s body instead of the virus. These clots form due to excessive inflammation from an overactive immune response in severely ill patients. Researchers are now trying to figure out how this response happens. Currently, the belief is that some of the clottings may come from auto-antibodies that go after the cell membrane-forming molecules instead of the foreign invader. This attack would prompt neutrophils to release a “web of genetic material geared at trapping virus particles outside the cells.” While this process may control infections in tissue, it causes clotting in the bloodstream. Cardiologist Yogen Kanthi and her colleagues at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., reported that “some blood clots may form when the webs trap red blood cells and platelets, creating a sticky clump that can clog blood vessels.” Blood clots in the lungs have become a significant cause of death for COVID-19 patients.

Auto-antibodies that recognize phospholipids can cause antiphospholipid syndrome (APS). APS is an autoimmune disease in which auto-antibodies can activate clot-forming cells, putting patients at a higher risk of blood clots. Extremely ill COVID-19 patients sometimes have high levels of neutrophils as well as phospholipid-binding antibodies in their blood. The belief is that antibodies may be causing the neutrophils to release traps that create clotting.

According to the study, of 172 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, more than half had auto-antibodies that recognized one of three various types of host phospholipids. When the researchers combined auto-antibodies taken from six COVID-19 patients with lab-grown neutrophils, the neutrophils cast their nets. Furthermore, when the researchers injected the same patient auto-antibodies into mice, the mice formed blood clots.

While this research is promising, Thomas Kickler, a hematologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, states that “it’s unlikely that phospholipid auto-antibodies are the whole story.” Other inflammatory immune responses can also trigger clots, so the antibodies may only be part of the mystery.

On a brighter note, a process called plasmapheresis (filtering the liquid part of blood), could assist severely ill COVID-19 patients by removing the problematic antibodies.

This topic relates to our AP Biology study of the immune system. COVID-19 is a threatening virus that penetrates our immune system, and it can cause various problems in our body once it makes its way past our defenses. One of our main defenses is antibodies. Antibodies are specialized, Y-shaped proteins that bind to a foreign invader inside the body. The immune system uses the antibodies to search and mark the invader. Antibodies are a humoral response in part of the adaptive immune system which learns to recognize and eliminate specific invaders. People recovering from COVID-19 may have antibodies that are effective against the virus. Another bodily defense system is inflammation. Inflammation is an internal defense that is part of innate immunity. During inflammation, cells release histamine, and macrophages secrete cytokines. The histamines dilate local blood vessels and increase capillary permeability and cause the area to swell with fluid. Cytokines attract neutrophils and dendritic cells, and natural killer cells kill damaged or infected cells. A fever (a common symptom of COVID-19),  is a systematic inflammatory response triggered by pyrogens released by macrophages.

Our Next Steps To Defeat Covid-19.

Introduction

Whether it is protection from an angry bear, a criminal on the loose, the simple flu, or for safe sex, the measures we take to ensure our safety is one of the most important steps to continue to stay healthy and safe. We must continue to educate ourselves on what actions we must take in order to keep ourselves and the people around us as safe as possible.

Recently, our society has had a lot of controversy around products like masks and their effectiveness. Although many of our methods may not guarantee complete safety, we must attempt to reduce the amount of spread of serious viruses like SARS-CoV-2.

To quickly clarify, SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that invades our bodies. When SARS-CoV-2 is able to bypass our bodies’ immune system functions and infect cells in our system, our bodies contract the disease Covid-19. If further information is desired, please refer to this study on SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19 conducted by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

As we approach a whole year with the presence of Covid-19 in the United States of America, we must stop to reflect on our actions and see what we can do to prevent the virus from wreaking more havoc on our society. One of the most important factors for Covid-19’s ability to spread as much as it had, was the lack of proper protection techniques used by citizens of the United States of America.

Firstly, it is very important to understand how SARS-CoV-2 is able to transfer from person to person so easily. According to the CDC, The most common way for SARS-CoV-2 to spread is through people inhaling respiratory droplets, released through other people’s coughing, sneezing, talking, etc. into their own nose and mouth. Although much rarer, SARS-CoV-2 can sometimes be spread through airborne transmission and contact with contaminated surfaces.

Since breathing is a necessity to continue living, we obviously can’t perfectly avoid inhaling these respiratory droplets, but in what ways can we try to reduce the damage of possible Covid-19 cases in the United States of America…

Forms of Protection

According to the CDC, we can take very specific steps in order to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

To further elaborate on a few of these methods, we as a society must educate ourselves on the best and most efficient way to carry out these actions. One main example at the moment is mask usage in the United States of America. Despite constantly being told, I often see many citizens wearing their masks in ways that are strongly discouraged: some under the nose, some dangling from their ears, and some not on at all. Not only does this put their own bodies at risk of contracting Covid-19, but it also risks the health of others as well.

According to the articleStill Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus” by Nina Bai, a study conducted by health affairs, compared the Covid-19 growth rate before and after a mask mandate. Nina  states that “the first five days after a mandate, the daily growth rate slowed by 0.9 percentage-points compared to the five days prior to the mandate; at three weeks, the daily growth rate had slowed by 2 percentage-points.” Another study conducted by Christopher Leffler, Edsel Ing and many more professionals also found that out of the 198 countries that they had observed the Covid-19 death rate of “those with cultural norms or government policies favoring mask-wearing had lower death rates.”  Through studies, we can observe the effectiveness of such resources and use these materials such as masks to the best of our abilities to help each other stay safe.

If you are in need of instruction on how to properly use a mask and other small important pieces of information. Please refer to the CDC’s article “How to Select, Wear, and Clean Your Mask”

Another term that many have learned this year, is the term “Social Distancing.” Although staying 6 feet apart from one another like the CDC has told us, it becomes very difficult for every day citizens to abide to this rule as we have a natural tendency to gravitate towards our peers, family and other people in our communities. In order to reduce spreading the virus to other people we must stay socially-distant from others to allow people to live their lives much more comfortably, especially considering that most cases of SARS-CoV-2 transfer are caused through inhaling respiratory droplets.

Another luxury many people don’t use properly is the sinks that are in our homes and bathrooms. I’ve seen way too many people use hand sanitizer instead of going to wash their hands for the recommended 20 seconds with soap and water. For many reasons, this practice can be extremely harmful if someone is trying to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. According to the CDC, there are many cases where using regular hand sanitizer won’t be as efficient as a simple washing of hands with soap and water. For example, hand sanitizer is not as efficient on greasy and dirty hands: hands after handling food, playing sports, going fishing and many other activities that may lead to dirty hands. In cases as such, the CDC recommends using soap and water for 20 seconds. However, we must truly wash our hands by properly scrubbing our hands and not simply allow the water from the sink to run through our fingers and palms. The friction caused by scrubbing allows for the lifting of dirt, grease and microbes on your skin. Microbes are also extremely present under your nails which is why your parents always tell you to make sure to get your nails when you wash your hands. Without properly cleaning our hands and other parts of our bodies, we may accidentally bring harmful substances towards our face, where the virus may be able to easily enter our bodies. By cleaning our hands thoroughly and carefully, we significantly reduce the chances of spreading the virus to others and ourselves.

Biological Implication

The reason the CDC places so much emphasis on thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water, is so that we can make sure to keep our hands clean from any harmful substances. If someone were to only wash their hands with water, they wouldn’t be able to wash off all the non polar substances like grease and oil off of their hands. For this reason, we use soap to and water rather than only water. Due to water’s polar properties, it can only bond with other polar molecules. When one adds soap into their cleansing routine, there are two new parts being tossed into the mix. The hydrophilic heads from the soap attach to the water molecules and the hydrophobic tails of the molecule bond with the non polar substances such as grease and oil. The water then continues to carry the soap and harmful substances away from our hands as other water molecules pull them down with them as gravity takes its course. Soap, being made of lipids, shows versatility as it’s able to bond with both polar and non polar molecules and allows us to fully wash our hands with its polar and non polar qualities.

Conclusion

With proper masks, socially-distant people, clean hands and many other precautions we can make sure that the spread growth is reduced way more than it previously was. Scientists are still trying to figure out all the details themselves. They’re human beings and they’re bound to make mistakes as well, so we must be understanding and flexible when new studies and information prove claims that could help us reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19 even more. In these troubling times we must look out for each other and be strong yet malleable as we face hardships that many haven’t ever experienced before.

 

 

 

COVID-19 New Target: The Environment

The deadly COVID-19 virus has changed our way of living greatly, including individual human behavior as well as behavior on a larger scale regarding businesses and factories.

National Geographic published an article written by Beth Gardiner surrounding the misconception on how the environment has been impacted by this widespread virus. It is noted that many people assume the environment is in a thriving state due to a major decrease of time humans spent outside of their home. Ultimately this is not the case, the question is what’s really happening to our earth in this time of uncertainty?

The only way to answer this question is to look back on the beginning of the worldwide lockdown. In April 2020, people stayed inside, there was limited traveling occurring, and businesses and factories closed, with this information it imperative to see how this vast change impacted our surroundings. It was found that “daily global carbon emissions were down by 17 percent”. Although seemingly positive, this number is not much higher than that of previous years around a similar time. This means that with a complete lifestyle change from every single person and cooperation in the world, we still are unable to show a substantial amount of beneficial actions towards the environment to save it.

Now we all may know that carbon is released into the air in a variety of ways, however it is important to distinguish the differences in these ways. One of the most known, harmless ways is how living organisms release or interact with carbon. As we breathe we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, releasing it into the atmosphere, however plants and trees can use this CO2 to preform necessary tasks such as photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process where “plants use the energy from sunlight to produce glucose from carbon dioxide and water”. This process is crucial to support the life of a plant and provides their “food” to keep them thriving. Once the glucose is produced in the plant, pyruvate can be created. Pyruvic acid provides energy, ultimately allowing the increase of ATP production during the cellular respiration process.

ATP is energy used to power different processes such as forms of active transport allowing substances to move from a low to high concentration, unlike passive transport. ATP is not required when passive transport is occurring. As ATP is produced, it can be stored to be used later for processes such as cellular respiration and photosynthesis which are crucial in maintaining healthy plant cells, however, ATP can not be stored in its usual form, it must be in the form of storage molecules such as the carbohydrate glycogen. Carbohydrates function to store and release energy, once ATP is needed, it will be transformed out of it’s storage form back to ATP.

Now why is this background information important? Now that we see the good natural carbon dioxide does, we need to focus on how a certain type is damaging our planet. Carbon dioxide is emitted through the usage of gas from cars and factory productions, things so normalized on a daily basis. When these machines and vehicles release carbon, it has no where to go besides the atmosphere and plants can only take in so much carbon, ultimately its just pollution. This pollution now sits in our atmosphere and builds up as more time goes on. Carbon is needed to regulate and take in the inferred energy the earth releases, otherwise known as heat. Although carbon absorbs this energy, it still needs to go somewhere and one of those places is back into the earth’s environment. The excess amount of carbon in the atmosphere leads to something called climate change ultimately the more carbon released and built up, the hotter the earth will get which can make the earth inhospitable if we make no change. Another negative of the carbon build up in the atmosphere, is the effect is has on marine life. Carbon can make water acidic which damages the habitats and living conditions of underwater life.

Now that Carbon emission is fully explained and exemplified, lets answer our initial question. How has COVID-19 played apart in environmental issues. As mentioned there is evidence in a decrease in carbon emissions when human behavior was significantly changed, however the decrease barely surpassed that of previous years when life was ‘normal’. As things began to open up and manufacturing continued, it was found that the amount of carbon emissions went right back up to where there initially were. “In China, traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels”, and “factories pushed to make up for lost time, pollution returned in early May to pre-coronavirus levels, and in some places surpassed them”, disproving the idea that COVID-19 has been beneficial to our environment. Ultimately we have shown no progress in improving our environment even when almost every aspect of typical life was shut down. COVID-19 instilled panic in everyone including factories that are now just working to pollute the atmosphere more while they still can.

We have vaccines- is the pandemic over?

Does a vaccine mean the end of this pandemic?

For this portfolio project, I will be focusing on the vaccine development process and how the developing vaccines each prepare the immune system to fight COVID-19. The goal will be to explore the stages of development, testing, and distribution to the public and how these new vaccines function. Since there has been recent progress with a few vaccine candidates, namely the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, this blog post will be about the implications of vaccine distribution in coming months.

Firstly, a new vaccine does not mean that it will be safe for society to return to normal just yet. While we’re all definitely excited about the news of successful vaccine trials, the effects of vaccination are not immediate, and the goal of herd immunity will not be reached for a little while. Also, the vaccines have not been tested yet on children and pregnant women, and since women around childbearing age are highly represented in the population of health care workers, it is important that the vaccine work for pregnant women. With the trials so far, we do know that there have been no unexpected negative side effects to vaccination, just the typical mild ones such as injection-site soreness and fatigue.

So why is getting a vaccine so important? It’s true that none of the vaccines are 100% effective, but they have been proven to decrease the severity of symptoms. (Both vaccines have reported about 95% efficacy rates in preventing COVID-19.) There are many good reasons to get a vaccine. Not only will it protect you, but it will be a safer path than widespread infection to build herd immunity. Since the trials did not measure rates of infection, it remains unclear whether the vaccines prevent infection and transmission, though results from another vaccine’s trials suggest that it might somewhat protect against infection. Either way, the rate of subjects who became severely ill was lower for those vaccinated in these two prominent vaccines’ trials. The high rates of hospitalization are due to development of severe symptoms, so reducing symptoms would also help to slow the pandemic’s adverse effects.

So, we’ve seen that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are effective in reducing symptoms, but that brings us to another question. How do these vaccines work? Both of these vaccines are mRNA vaccines. This means that they deliver synthetic messenger RNA that is taken in by immune cells that then produce the spike protein, just as would happen if the cells came into contact with the actual virus. However, since it is just the proteins, there is no risk of getting infected with COVID-19 from the vaccine itself. The immune system will then recognize the protein as a foreign substance and develop an immune response and produce memory cells that will respond swiftly in the case of seeing that protein again. As we learned, the adaptive immune defense depends on the recognition of the epitope of a virus, in this case the spike protein. After first infection, the memory B and Tc cells that are produced via clonal expansion remain in the lymph nodes until the same virus attacks again. However, this mRNA vaccine removes the need for a first infection in developing adaptive immunity because the spike proteins are produced without the rest of the virus needing to be introduced.

Now, let’s imagine it’s a few months from now, and the distribution of vaccines has begun. Can we skip the precautions we have in place now? Do we still need social distancing and mask-wearing? Well, until most people are able to be vaccinated, it will be important to maintain safety protocols that reduce the spread. Even once somebody is vaccinated, they will need to follow guidelines, because it takes several weeks for the immune defense to build up, and both vaccines require a booster dose about a month after the first one. Also, we’ve already addressed the uncertainty about transmission after vaccination, so it’s best to err on the side of caution. 

So, even though these vaccines may not be perfect, they will help control the pandemic. The main question that remains is how efficiently and fairly vaccines can be distributed to best reduce deaths and bring about an end to the pandemic.

Covid-19: It’s Time We Start Listening to the Long-Haulers

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of people across the globe have contracted Covid-19, and while many have unfortunately lost their lives to the virus, millions of people have been able to recover from Covid-19. However, recovering from Covid-19 may not mean the end to all problems for patients. Many people who have recovered from the Covid-19 have expressed that they are still experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, muscle/body aches, and shortness of breath. 

What is a Long-Hauler?

These people that are showing continued symptoms of Covid-19, even after “recovering” from the virus, are being referred to as Covid-19 long-haulers. As mentioned before, long-haulers face lingering, persistent symptoms such as constant fatigue, difficulty breathing, and headaches that have prolonged to weeks or even months after defeating the virus. In a well-written article by the New York Times, the experience of Covid-19 long-haulers is examined. The article focuses on myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and how it relates to covid-19 long-haulers. 

While rather unknown by many, ME/CFS has been around and diagnosed for a decent amount of time. ME/CFS often follows viral infections, thus it is really no surprise to the people who have been researching ME/CFS, like Jamie Seltzer, a main contributor to the article, that an estimated 10% of Covid-19 patients are suffering symptoms like fatigue, brain fog and chronic pain for prolonged periods of time. The article explains that the amount of Covid-19 long-haulers that have tested positive for COVID-19 or its antibodies makes a strong case that coronavirus is turning into ME/CFS. 

While the exact cause of ME/CFS is not completely understood, findings of immune abnormalities in some ME/CFS patients, such as elevated levels of certain cytokines or poorly functioning immune cells, has enabled researchers to believe that the immune system plays a role in the development of ME/CFS. In relation to our AP Biology class, we learned about the immune system and the function of cytokines. Cytokines attract neutrophils, which digest pathogens and dead cell debris, as well as dendritic cells. Cytokines are important in regulating the body’s response to disease and infection.

Since ME/CFS is unknown to many, and the exacts of how it occurs is not completely understood, the article notes that ME/CFS is regarded as a contested illness. This means that the legitimacy of ME/CFS is questioned by some in the medical field. Many coronavirus long-haulers have noted that they have experienced doctors who were skeptical, rude, or unhelpful, if not baldly disbelieving of their condition/symptoms. Thus, the main point of the article is that the Covid-19 long-haulers should open the eyes of many in the medical field to the legitimacy of ME/CFS. It is a hope by some in the ME/CFS research field that the experience of Covid-19 long-haulers will prompt more research into ME/CFS, a condition that receives fractional amounts for research compared to more known illnesses. 

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After reading this article, I do believe I’ve gained a lot. As a rather healthy young adult, the idea that “if I got covid, I’d be fine,” sort of plagues your mind. However, now I know that it is much more complicated than that. If the estimation that 10% of Covid-19 patients experience prolonged symptoms is accurate, then it should definitely prompt more people of my age to make sure they are doing everything they can to prevent the contraction and the spread of the virus. The cure to ME/CFS is still unknown, so it is crucial we do what we can to prevent getting it. 

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