BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: COVID-19 (Page 2 of 4)

New Covid-19 Pill! Will it work?

Pill 2

In a study conducted by Tina Saey, she looked at Merck’s Covid- 19 pill Molnupiravir and how it is affecting hospitalization rates of Covid-19. Molnupiravir, “an antiviral drug that can be taken at home” is the first medicine that can be taken orally that is approved to help fight off Covid-19. The drug is typically administered to patients who have mild to moderate Covid within five days of their symptoms appearing. Molnupiravir has been tested several times and is now waiting on the FDA for formal approval. This new pill could be a game-changer, but will it really be as great as it seems?

Ms. Saey states that “finding an early treatment hasn’t been easy”, so when Molnupiravir came around experts praised its development. Initially, the pill showed great signs of preventing hospitalizations and death from Covid-19. The results were so promising, a 48% decrease in hospitalizations, that the trial ended early so that the pill might become available to the public faster. However, when all the data was collected and analyzed the reduction in hospitalization rate dropped to 30%. The unexplained decrease happened when participants in the placebo group were no longer experiencing severe symptoms. Due to the decrease in reported effectiveness, the FDA’s antimicrobial drugs advisory committee came to a split 13-10 decision on whether the drug should be available for emergency use. 

The main concern for authorizing Molnupiravir is that the pill could create even more dangerous versions of the Covid- 19 coronavirus. The drug works by making mutations in the RNA. This is when a change occurs that affects nucleic acids, the building blocks of RNA. A handful of these mutations could land in the spike protein. Spike proteins interact with the cell receptors located on the host cell; in terms of Covid-19 it helps the coronavirus break into cells. The spike protein could also burst into other proteins making the virus more transmittable. James Hildreth, an immunologist stated that, “the potential for this drug to drive some very challenging variants into the public is of major, major concern.” Although this is a possibility it seems unlikely because, after five days of usage, infectious viruses in participants taking Molnupiravir were no longer detectable. 

SARS-CoV-2 without background

Spike Protein

Overall, there is much promise but also notable concerns to the new drug Molnupiravir. I believe that this new medicine, even with its downsides, could save hundreds of thousands of lives. As Ms. Saey states, “a 30 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths is worth giving the drug temporary authorization.”

How Does the New COVID-19 Pill Work? Has it Proven to be Effective?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many lives across the world. Many people wonder when society can return back to “normal life”. While vaccines are a great and effective way to begin the process of protecting people against SARS-CoV-2, a professional must administer the shot which may be time consuming and immunizations require more resources than other medications such as pills. Recently there has been more positive research on a new pill that helps the body fight SARS-CoV-2. This pill is a game changer to the future of the COVID-19 pandemic as it can be taken at home rather than vaccinations which must be administered by a healthcare professional.

Pill 1

A new study shows that an at-home pill cuts the chance of hospitalization  of newly diagnosed SARS-CoV-2 patients in half. This pill is comprised of an antiviral drug called molnupiravir; molnupiravir is the first oral medication proven to be successful in reducing the viral COVID-19 RNA. The pill was tested in a pool of subjects who were at high risk of developing severe illness once diagnosed with COVID-19. Of the subjects, 377 patients received the placebo and 385 patients received the molnupiravir pill. Within 29 days of beginning the trial, 14.1% of patients who received the placebo were hospitalized, eight of which died. Within this same time frame, 7.3% of patients who received the pill were hospitalized, none of which died. It is important to note that not only did the pill decrease hospitalizations by about half, but this medication also worked for gamma, delta, and mu variants of SARS-CoV-2. 

Once the SARS-CoV-2 virus has entered the body’s cells, it replicates its RNA. The complete virus particles exit the cell and begin infecting other cells which begins the virus’s rapid spread throughout the body. As we learned in AP Biology, helper T cells secrete cytokines which activate the adaptive immune response . However, when SARS-CoV-2 without backgroundtoo many cells are infected there are a lot more helper T cells secreting cytokines into the bloodstream; this is referred to as a cytokine storm. A cytokine storm can result in dead tissue or damage to organs and is an unfortunate COVID-19 complication. However, this pill works to disrupt the SARS-CoV-2 RNA reproduction. Once the molnupiravir drug is absorbed into the virus infected cells, it is converted into defected nucleotides(building blocks of RNA). When the virus attempts to replicate, it is unable to because its genetic code is defective. Because it can not replicate, the amount of virus in the body will remain low. Due to the low SARS-CoV-2 viral count, the virus is less harmful which is made evident in the study summarized above. 

It is evident that this pill is effective and can save many lives. Do you think this could be a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic, leading the beginning of life as we knew it before March 2020?

 

Are Plant-Based Diets The Cure to COVID?

We all know that unhealthy diets can cause medical issues, and thus sticking to healthy foods is better, but this conversation has not been so prevalent regarding COVID. Everyone is told to “mask up,” to “get vaccinated,” and to “wash your hands, yet I cannot recall the last time someone told me to “eat healthy” to stay safe from the pandemic.

In a recent study by Massachusetts General Hospital, over half a million people in the USA and the UK participated in a smart phone symptom study that analyzed each participant’s diet and gathered data for the results. Each participant added data about their diet, which was ranked by healthiness through a “Plant-BasedDiet Score that emphasizes healthy plant foods such as fruits and vegetables.” From March to December 2020, 31,831 participants were infected by COVID, and those with better diets had a “41% lower risk of developing severe COVID-19” symptoms. They also had a 9% lower chance of getting infected.

The researchers connected these sample statistics with the socioeconomic inequality caused and reinforced by COVID. They found a relationship between “poor diet and increased socioeconomic deprivation with COVID-19 risk that was higher than the sum of the risk associated with each factor alone.” Often poorer communities have less access to healthy food, specifically plant-based ingredients that led to less severe COVID results in this study. This means that they may have a higher chance at infection, and likely will have more dangerous outcomes to COVID. This means while plant-based diets can very much help prevent the dangerous nature of COVID-19, but is not a strategy many can employ.

Why does healthy eating help fighting COVID? Well, we know that the humoral and cell mediated immune responses are crucial in building immunity and fighting against COVID. Cytotoxic T-Cells destroy infected cells, and Plasma B-Cells  create antibodies.  Macrophages also destroy antigens to help out. With all these important parts of the immune system being so important, and being attacked by COVID, the body needs food to create more.

Fcell-08-00677-g001

Vitamins and Minerals are crucial for this, and plants are the prime method of acquiring such nutrients. “Vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, iron, and protein” all crutial in building and strengthening the immune system, as per Harvard T.H. Chan. Proteins in particular can be used by the body to create more white blood cells, which are made much of protein. Consuming too much fat and sugars will not go into the immune systems, which depresses it.

Healthy diets, including plant-based diets, are not a cure for COVID, but the data has shown it may help people. Unfortunately, it will not help everyone due to socioeconomic inequality, and is another reason why governments should focus on getting better access to healthy food in poorer communities that don’t currently have much. For those who are able to eat healthy, please do so. Not only does it help the fight against COVID, but in any sickness. These statistics are not specific to COVID, but it is important for this conversation to be had about eating healthy because the focus is often only about vaccines, masks and politics with COVID. It is not a cure, though. Getting vaccinated and wearing a mask is the best way to stop the spread, and I highly suggest everyone get vaccinated.

This study also supports the new plant-based diet trend. Many skeptics do not want anything to do with this diet, but from athletes like Serena Williams using it, to this study supporting it, plant-based diets are getting results.

Could This Chewing Gum Help Prevent COVID-19?

With COVID-19 being the topic of discussion in the world right now scientists all around the world are trying to find any solution they can to help prevent this virus. A recent study has found that a specific chewing gum could actually reduce the spread of COVID-19. The research was led by UPenn’s School of Dental Medicine’s scientists. The study involved using samples of saliva from COVID-19 patients.

The transfer of COVID-19 to the body involves spike proteins and ACE2 proteins. The COVID-19 virus is surrounded by receptor proteins which are what actually bind to other receptors of our cells in our bodies. This binding is how the virus is able to enter our body and affect the different cells. The specific protein that the COVID-19 spike proteins bind to in our body is called the ACE2 receptor protein. Scientists began researching 3D medical animation coronavirus structurewhether they could inhibit this binding to the ACE2 protein.

The research done at Upenn led by Henry Daniell actually had began their research before they knew it. Prior to COVID-19 the team was researching the ACE2 proteins to prevent hypertension. They were able to grow this protein in the lab using a plant based production system. This involved putting DNA that was specific to creating the ACE2 proteins into the plants. This plant material could be a new means of delivering this protein. The Dental School had been working on a chewing gum that also used such plant proteins to prevent plaque in their patients. Daniell began to wonder if his team’s ACE2 plant based proteins could combine with the chewing gum plant protein based compound. This sparked the collaboration of both teams to combine their research into one solution for COVID-19. When the ACE2 plant receptor proteins were implanted into the chewing gum they tested the saliva from COVID-19 patients to see the change in the cells. After the chewing gum was exposed to the saliva the viral RNA that was present in the cells was almost eradicated completely. This was able to work because the COVID-19 spike proteins bind to the chewing gum’s ACE2 receptor proteins instead of the body’s cell’s ACE2 proteins. It served as a barrier or replacement for the proteins to bind to distracting it from the human cells. This prevented almost all the viral cells from affecting the important human cells.  Though this research is both new and in its early stages of development it could be a great asset in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the future.

How Mice and Mental Health Led to This COVID-19 Treatment Breakthrough

Ever since the initial outbreak of COVID-19, scientists have worked tirelessly to innovate and find the antidote to the virus which has infected millions and tragically killed hundreds of thousands. Such unprecedented times have led researchers to reconsider everything they already know and take intellectual risks.

One innovator whose experimental hypothesis may save many is Angela Reiersen, a child psychiatrist from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. When she fell ill with COVID-19 in March 2020, Reiersen thought back to a study she had read about the effects of the lack of the sigma-1 receptor in mice and how the lack of this receptor protein led to massive inflammation and overproduction of cytokines. Cytokines are a part of the inflammatory response that occurs when pathogens sneak past the barrier defenses of the innate immune system and permeate cells. Upon entry of a pathogen, mast cells secrete histamines and macrophages secrete these cytokines. These cytokines attract neutrophils which then digest and kill the pathogens and other cell debris. Although cytokines are crucial to a functioning immune system, overproduction of cytokines can be extremely dangerous as it can lead to septic shock, in which the immune system becomes extremely overactive. This has become the cause of death for many COVID-19 patients.

As a psychiatrist, Reiersen worked regularly with SSRIS, or selective serotonin uptake inhibitors, in the treatment of conditions like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. SSRIs help the human brain by increasing the level of serotonin available between nerve cells, but they also activate the S1R in the Endoplasmic Reticulum. Reiersen wondered, if the lack of the S1R causes fatal levels of inflammation, can we prevent extreme inflammation from COVID-19 through the use of SSRIs?

There have been multiple studies performed to test this line of reasoning, both including and independent of Reiersen. The most notable study was performed as part of TOGETHER, an international organization seeking to test possible unorthodox treatments for COVID-19. The trial was a collaboration between researchers from McMaster University of Canada and Cardresearch, a research clinic located in Brazil. The team in Brazil located 1,497 unvaccinated adults who were deemed “high risk” for COVID complications in their first week of showing symptoms of COVID. Conducted at 11 different research sites in Brazil from January to August, the study provided participants with a 10 days supply of either 100 milligrams of fluvoxamine, an SSRI, or a placebo pill. The researchers monitored the participants for 28 days after, as well.

In the end, 15.7% of participants who were given a placebo pill ended up having major complications from COVID-19, compared to 10.1% of participants who were given fluvoxamine. The gap may seem slight, but this is because not all patients took their full dosage due to gastrointestinal complaints. However, out of patients who completed their course of medication, 66% were safe from any complications and the mortality rate was cut by 91%!

Thanks to the research of Reiersen and many others, fluvoxamine is now considered a solid treatment plan for COVID-19 infections, especially in high risk individuals. As COVID-19 continues to infect millions around the world, who knows what new scientific breakthroughs will be made?

“US braces for Omicron!”…Whats all the hubbub really about?

I was studying for AP Bio one day, when I first heard about the fears around the omicron variant. All over instagram, facebook, I even received emails about it: there seems to be major concern among many, including prominent medical researchers, according to WHO.

World Health Organization Logo

“What is the omicron variant?” You may ask.  This variant was first reported from South Africa  Wednesday, November 24th. In the recent weeks, cases of infection have been increasing rapidly in South Africa, likely as a result of this mutated variant. According to WHO, this variant has a large number of concerning mutations (discussed in detail below), some of which increase the risk of infection. Luckily, current SARS-CoV-2 PCR tests still can be used as a marker in detecting this new omicron variant. Because of this fact, officials have been able to detect this variant faster than previous surges in infection cases.

OmicronDespite being able to detect this variant faster than previously, researchers are still concerned over the mutations this variant poses and the implications that could have in this pandemic. Being the fastest spreading variant yet, some of these concerns include the specific mutations on the spike proteins. As we learned before, Spike Proteins protrude from the SARS-CoV-2 cell, allowing for it to bind to receptors on the host cell. Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, says there are more than 30 mutations to the spike protein in omicron, which could possibly make it more contagious and/or allow this variant to evade our vaccines. 

Many of the mutations detected on the omicron variant have been found in the delta and Alpha variants, and are linked to heightened infections, as well as the ability to evade infection-blocking antibodies and other immune responses. Mutations to regions of the spike protein in the omicron variant has changed the way the antibodies recognize the pathogens, hindering their ability to bind to the spike proteins. If the spike proteins have mutated and changed shape, then the antibodies will not be as effective in binding. Additionally, hints from computer modeling have revealed the omicron variant could dodge the immunity given by the T cells. However, Scientists have yet to understand the true significance of these mutations and what it means for the response to the pandemic. Penny Moore and her team hope to have their first results in two weeks. 

What does this mean for vaccine efficacy?

Solo-mrna-vaccine-4 Well, two quarantined travelers in Hong Kong have tested positive for the omicron variant despite being vaccinated using the Pfizer vaccine. Additionally, Moore says that breakthrough infections have been reported in South Africa among people who have received the vaccine. Again, researchers in South Africa will soon find whether this omicron variant causes illness that is more severe or milder than that produced by the other variants. We should hear their results soon. According to Researchers, the greater threat that this omicron variant poses beyond South Africa is unclear. In the meantime, a way to fight for a healthy future would be to continually take the measures necessary to reduce the risk of COVID-19, including proven public health measures such as wearing masks, hand hygiene, social distancing, and getting vaccinated.

Let me know your thoughts below on this new variant! Stay Safe!

 

How does the Omicron variant of COVID-19 compare to the deadly Delta variant?

With news of the new variant of the COVID-19 virus reaching 16 states here in the US, many are asking: What is this Omicron variant?

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first reported to the World Health Organization by the Head of South African Medical Association, Dr. Angelique Coetzee. As of December 6, 2021, there are about 59,000 Americans hospitalized due to said variant.  The Delta variant, more than twice as contagious than previous variants according to the CDC, still continues to be the leading cause of COVID-related hospitalization and deaths today in the US and many other countries. However, medical experts are saying that Omicron has a few different key mutations that make it very likely to outperform Delta. How does this Omicron variant compare to the deadly Delta variant which we’ve been battling this year? Here are the main things you need to know.

Symptoms of the Omicron variant:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Infection and Spread:

So far, people who have been diagnosed with the Omicron variant of SARS-Cov-2 in the US have or had mild symptoms, yet it is said to be much more contagious. Why? The difference in the structure of the spike proteinVariants of COVID-19 have mutations present in the spike protein due to copying errors in our DNA.

File:Omicron.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Omicron Structure pictured

The Delta variant has 18 mutations in its spike proteins…Omicron has a whopping 43! That is many, many more than Delta. Jeremy Kamil, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport, said, “The number of changes blew people’s minds…It’s an exaggeration to say we’re back at square one, but this is not a good development.”

Around 30 countries have detected said variant so far; 19 states in the US have. The high number of mutations it contains does not necessarily mean it’s more dangerous. As previously stated, Omicron patients have thus far exhibited milder symptoms. Dr. Coatzee said that she first discovered Omicron’s appearance as her patients exhibited “unusual symptoms” in comparison to the Delta variant. However, don’t be too scared; experts say our immune systems have grown more equipped to fight the COVID-19 virus.

We still have yet to learn more about Omicron and its nature, infection, etc., as it is very new.

Free COVID-19 Illustrations - Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI)The original COVID-19 virus’s structure is pictured above

With Omicron having more than double the mutations as Delta, the likeliness of transmission/level of contagiousness is quite high–also meaning that the efficacy of our vaccine could be compromised. The Omicron spike protein has similar components that of the Delta, beta, and gamma variants, meaning that the rate of transmissibility is similar. With Omicron having the largest number of mutations, however, transmissibility can be increased more than 2x!

What should you do?

Well, continue to follow the standard COVID-19 measures. Wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, travel less, and just be careful. These methods have proven time and time again to help. Travel restrictions on the rise can be tough with the holidays coming, but remember that they are only in place for the sake of our safety. It is important to follow these rules as the pandemic is not over.

Could This Common Spray Help Prevent COVID-19?

A recent study has found that the use of nasal spray can put people at a lower risk for COVID-19. The study was done at the Cleveland Clinic and the data was taken from already existing COVID-19 patients in the healthcare system. The study compared those who used nasal spray and those who didn’t and saw how they were affected by COVID-19. The study concluded that those who used the nasal spray were 22% less likely to be FACT- Rinsing your nose with saline does NOT prevent COVID-19 (cropped)hospitalized, 23% less likely to need intensive care, and 24% less likely to die from the virus.

The study focuses on the effects of the COVID-19 on the nose. Research in this area has come to learn that a certain protein receptor is very important when it comes to actually acquiring COVID-19. This is the ACE2 protein receptor. A protein receptor is the way the virus actually enters the cells of the body. The receptors are all around the cell and are used to allow certain type of bacteria, molecules, and many other structures into the cell. The COVID-19 virus is aligned with spike proteins which are what connects to the ACE2 receptors. The only way something can successfully enter the cell is if it can successful attach to the receptor by having the corresponding configuration and shape. The ACE2 receptor can actually be found all over the body, but it was found to be crucial in the spread of coronavirus to the rest of the body when in the nose. When there are more of these receptors is when a person is more susceptible to COVID-19.

There are certain nasal spray steroids that are known to reduce the ACE2 receptor activity and Dr. Ronald Strauss, a member of the Cleveland Clinic, wondered if this could affect COVID-19. The study consisted of 72,000 patients who had been positive for the coronavirus between April 2020 and March 2021. Approximately 10,000 of those patients were on a nasal spray prior to the virus. Those using ended up having less admittance to the ICU, less hospitalization, and less cases of death. The nasal spray that was used to block the ACE2 receptors for other reasons was actually able to limit the amount of COVID-19 virus cells that could bind successfully to the cells and spread through the body. The nose is a very important part of our body that serves as an entry way to the rest of our body. Nasal sprays are a great way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and are available over the counter at a low-cost.

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? 

Page 2 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

Skip to toolbar