Johnson & Johnson Is Working on a COVID-19 Vaccine That Requires a Single Dose

Johnson & Johnson Is Working on a COVID-19 Vaccine That Requires a Single Dose

Korin Miller                              January 18, 2021
Photo credit: Stefan Cristian Cioata - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stefan Cristian Cioata – Getty Images – From Prevention

 

While Pfizer and Moderna both have COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S., other vaccine candidates are still in the works, including a single-dose option from Johnson & Johnson, which has about 45,000 people enrolled in ongoing phase 3 clinical trials. According to early data just released by the company, this vaccine also shows major promise.

Interim phase 1/2a data were published on Jan. 13 in the New England Journal of Medicine, and the results show the company’s vaccine candidate created an immune response in patients for at least 71 days—the full length of time measured in the study so far.

The vaccine was also “generally well-tolerated” in study participants, Johnson & Johnson said in a press release. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are similar, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine also has plenty of differences. Here’s what we know so far, plus what lies ahead.

How does the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine work?

Johnson & Johnson has an andenovector vaccine, which uses double-stranded DNA to promote an immune response in the body. This technology works differently than the mRNA vaccines available from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which both use single-stranded RNA.

In the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, researchers added a piece of genetic material from the novel coronavirus’ spike protein (the piece that latches onto human cells) into another virus, Adenovirus 26, which was modified so it has the ability to enter cells but not reproduce inside of them. Adenoviruses are common viruses that usually cause cold-like symptoms, but because the one used in the vaccine was altered and cannot replicate, it can’t make you sick. (Other COVID-19 vaccines, including Oxford and AstraZeneca’s candidate, uses similar adenovirus technology.)

When you get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the modified adenovirus carrying a piece of the spike protein latches onto the surface of your cells. It’s pulled inside, where the modified virus travels to the cell nucleus, home to its DNA. The adenovirus then puts its DNA into the nucleus, the spike protein gene is read by the cell, and it’s then copied into messenger RNA (mRNA).

After that, the mRNA leaves the nucleus and serves as a set of instructions for other cells, so they begin making spike proteins. Those are then recognized by your immune system, and your body reacts by producing antibodies to the perceived threat (even though no threat exists).

Your immune system cells then remember how to fight the distinct piece of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus, so if you come into contact with it in the future, your body will have the capability to fight it more efficiently.

This technology is unique but Johnson & Johnson has a lot of experience with it, as it’s already been used for its Ebola vaccine. “They’ve given hundreds of thousands of doses of this similar vaccine,” which has had no major safety issues, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

While it’s still being tested, Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine may only require one shot rather than two. Its trials so far have found that giving both one or two doses of the vaccine spurred an effective immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 in study participants, but nothing is set in stone until phase 3 clinical trials are complete and the company has enough data to support its single dose.

How effective is the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine?

It’s not entirely clear at this point. Published data from the early stage trials found that more than 90% of people who were vaccinated developed neutralizing antibodies (which are expected to stop SARS-CoV-2 from infecting your cells) 29 days after they received the first dose of the vaccine. Two months after the first dose, all participants had developed neutralizing antibodies, which stayed put for at least 71 days.

What are the side effects of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine?

According to the data so far, it may cause “mild-to-moderate side effects typically associated with vaccinations,” similar to those expected from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This includes cold-like symptoms, like a headache, body aches, pain at the injection site, and a fever—a normal sign that the body’s immune response is being primed.

How is the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine stored?

One of the biggest perks of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is its durability. Because it doesn’t harbor delicate mRNA like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (which need to stay frozen), it’s much less fragile and can stay stable in a normal refrigerator (36–46°F) for up to three months.

“That’s a big advantage,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. Safely storing the other available vaccines, particularly the Pfizer vaccine (which needs to be kept at a frigid -94°F), presents challenges for the average doctor’s office or pharmacy, as most locations don’t have specialty freezers that reach those temperatures.

When will it be granted an emergency use authorization by the FDA?

“It’s too soon to say because we don’t have phase 3 clinical data yet,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

However, he’s hopeful, because “the phase 2 clinical trial results look strong.” Dr. Russo agrees that “as of right now, there are no major concerns with the safety signals.”

Johnson & Johnson’s phase 3 clinical trial is expected to wrap up by mid-February. If everything checks out, the company can apply for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Dr. Russo says. Once the FDA grants its approval, it’s possible that the vaccine could be authorized sometime in March.

In August, the company signed a $1 billion contract with the federal government, pledging to produce 12 million doses of its vaccine by February and 100 million doses by the end of June. However, The New York Times reports production may be about two months behind schedule.

Will you get to choose which COVID-19 vaccine you get?

At this point, that doesn’t seem likely. “In this initial phase of vaccinations, there’s probably not going to be much of a choice for people,” Dr. Adalja says. Rather, the health department or agency administering the vaccine will make the decision, mostly based on which vaccine is readily available in a specific area.

But a lot of this really comes down to what the data will say. “Exactly how effective is this vaccine?” Dr. Schaffner says. “If there’s a noteworthy difference, that might change things.”

Almost a third of recovered Covid patients return to hospital in five months and one in eight die

Almost a third of recovered Covid patients return to hospital in five months and one in eight die

Sarah Knapton                           January 17, 2021
Paramedics transport a patient from the ambulance to the emergency department at the the Royal London Hospital - Barcroft Media 
Paramedics transport a patient from the ambulance to the emergency department at the the Royal London Hospital – Barcroft Media

 

Almost a third of recovered Covid patients will end up back in hospital within five months and one in eight will die, alarming new figures have shown.

Research by Leicester University and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found there is a devastating long-term toll on survivors of severe coronavirus, with many people developing heart problems, diabetes and chronic liver and kidney conditions.

Out of 47,780 people who were discharged from hospital in the first wave, 29.4 per cent were readmitted to hospital within 140 days, and 12.3 per cent of the total died.

The current cut-off point for recording Covid deaths is 28 days after a positive test, so it may mean thousands more people should be included in the coronavirus death statistics.

Researchers have called for urgent monitoring of people who have been discharged from hospital.

Study author Kamlesh Khunti, professor of primary care diabetes and vascular medicine at Leicester University, said: “This is the largest study of people discharged from hospital after being admitted with Covid.

“People seem to be going home, getting long-term effects, coming back in and dying. We see nearly 30 per cent have been readmitted, and that’s a lot of people. The numbers are so large.

“The message here is we really need to prepare for long Covid. It’s a mammoth task to follow up with these patients and the NHS is really pushed at the moment, but some sort of monitoring needs to be arranged.”

The study found that Covid survivors were nearly three and a half times more likely to be readmitted to hospital, and die, in the 140 days timeframe than other hospital outpatients.

Prof Khunti said the team had been surprised to find that many people were going back in with a new diagnosis, and many had developed heart, kidney and liver problems, as well as diabetes.

He said it was important to make sure people were placed on protective therapies, such as statins and aspirin.

“We don’t know if it’s because Covid destroyed the beta cells which make insulin and you get Type 1 diabetes, or whether it causes insulin resistance, and you develop Type 2, but we are seeing these surprising new diagnoses of diabetes,” he added.

“We’ve seen studies where survivors have had MRS scans and they’ve cardiac problems and liver problems.

“These people urgently require follow up and the need to be on things like aspirin and statins.”

The new study was published on a pre-print server and is yet to be peer reviewed. However experts described the paper as “important”.

Commenting on the study on Twitter, Christina Pagel, director of the clinical operational research unit at University College London said: “This is such important work. Covid is about so much more than death. A significant burden of long-term illness after hospitalization for Covid.”

Last year, researchers at North Bristol NHS Trust found that three quarters of virus patients treated at Bristol’s Southmead Hospital were still experiencing problems three months later.

Symptoms included breathlessness, excessive fatigue and muscle aches, leaving people struggling to wash, dress and return to work.

Some patients say they have been left needing a wheelchair since contracting the virus, while others claim they can no longer walk up the stairs without experiencing chest pain.

In December, the ONS estimated that one in 10 people who catch coronavirus go on to suffer long Covid with symptoms lasting three months or more.

Overall, roughly 186,000 people in private households in England in the week beginning November 22 were living with Covid-19 symptoms that had persisted for between five and 12 weeks, the most up-to-date ONS data shows.

In the end, you have to trust the government when it comes to the vaccine, don’t you?

Chicago SunTimes

In the end, you have to trust the government when it comes to the vaccine, don’t you?

I intend to get vaccinated because it’s the right thing to do. As an old codger, I owe it to the younger generation to set a good example.

“I’m ready to roll up my sleeve and say ‘I still believe’ in this country,” writes Phil Kadner. “Just tell me where and when to show up.”  Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times.

 

Do you trust the government with your life? That’s what this comes down to.

I am trying very hard to answer “Yes” to that question, although everything in my life’s experience says, “Are you crazy?”

I am speaking about the COVID-19 vaccine.

I have decided I will get the vaccinations — two shots — when they become available to me. I think. Ask me again tomorrow and I may not be so sure.

But right now, I intend to get vaccinated because it is the right thing to do. As an old codger, I owe it to the younger generation to set a good example and I have always wanted to be the fellow in the disaster movie who says, “Leave me behind. You get to safety youngsters. I’ll hold them off.”

Okay. That might not be the right quote here. But I think you understand my intent.

Just tell me where to show up for the big moment.

That’s the thing that’s bugging me. No one seems to know how this is going to work. Once the medical people get their shots and the people in nursing homes get theirs, and the first responders, and the teachers, what’s the plan exactly?

As an old guy with some medical conditions that put me at high risk, I should be pretty high up on the list to get vaccinated. But is someone going to call me on the phone and say, “Get your sleeve rolled up, stand away from the door, we’re coming in,” or what?

Will I get an email saying, “Congratulations, you have won a free COVID-19 shot, all you have to do is agree to the five pages of terms and conditions and your vaccine will arrive in the mail?”

Just tell me what’s next.

Are we all going to get in our cars and form a line at the vehicle emissions testing site? I’m willing to do that, but there must be many toilet facilities nearby because old codgers need to make frequent pit stops, if you know what I mean? In fact, watching those miles-long car lines for vaccinations in Florida, I could think of little else.

I keep hearing that COVID vaccine shipments are getting lost and vials are being taken out of the freezer and forgotten, which I find worrisome. I don’t want to get a dose of the vaccine that has lost its potency.

Speaking of potency, I heard on the TV news that someone is thinking of diluting the doses, splitting them in half, so more people can be vaccinated. Did anyone actually test this stuff or are people at the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control just playing games with us?

I can’t help thinking that rich people, public figures, celebrities and other folks of influence are going to end up getting the vaccine before the rest of us.

Hearing that NFL and NBA players are getting tested repeatedly for COVID-19 before games while millions of other Americans are told testing is unavailable may have something to do with that.

I mean, there’s always somebody happy to use the road shoulder to cut around the rest of the traffic in a construction zone. Special rules for special people.

We have to trust the government here. But the incompetence, the finger-pointing between state and national governments, the lack of accountability, are troubling.

It’s not easy, even for someone who has been an advocate of national health care for many years, to say this will all work out in the end. I mean, the end has arrived for hundreds of thousands of people. Many of them trusted the government. Many of them died because they did not.

I’m ready to roll up my sleeve and say “I still believe” in this country. Just tell me where and when to show up. As for you youngsters out there who are afraid, just stand behind me. It’s going to be all right.

See. I got my disaster movie moment after all.

Contact Phil Kadner at philkadner@gmail.com

Biden to yank Keystone XL permit on first day of presidency

Biden to yank Keystone XL permit on first day of presidency

Lauren Gardner and Ben Lefebvre                     January 17, 2021
The Keystone XL Pipeline: Everything You Need To Know | NRDC

President-elect Joe Biden will rescind the cross-border permit for TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office, three sources confirm to POLITICO.

The move is billed as one of Biden’s Day One climate change actions, according to a presentation circulating among Washington trade groups and lobbyists, a portion of which was seen by POLITICO. The decision was not included in incoming chief of staff Ron Klain’s Saturday memo outlining Biden’s planned executive actions during the first days of his presidency.

Two lobbyists confirmed that Biden plans to yank the project’s permit on Inauguration Day, a development first reported by CBC News. It’s the latest development in a decade-long fight over the controversial pipeline and solidifies a campaign promise the Canadian government had hoped was negotiable.

“The only question has always been whether labor can stave off the death sentence,” said one oil and gas lobbyist who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “And they never had a chance.”

A Biden transition spokesperson declined to comment.

Canada’s ambassador to Washington Kirsten Hillman would not confirm reports. “The Government of Canada continues to support the Keystone XL project,” she said in a statement to POLITICO on Sunday evening. “Keystone XL fits within Canada’s climate plan. It will also contribute to U.S. energy security and economic competitiveness.”

Rescinding Keystone XL would negate one of President Donald Trump’s own first actions in office and kill a project that had become a political totem in the fight between climate activists and the oil industry. Despite many analysts saying the boom in U.S. shale oil made new sources of Canadian crude less important, TC Energy has fought years of legal challenges against it obtaining the needed state permits that would all it to build the pipeline.

The reaction: TC Energy announced Sunday that Keystone XL would achieve net-zero emissions across operations once it begins running in 2023. A spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on Biden’s executive order plans.

Environmentalists applauded the decision. “President-elect Biden is showing courage and empathy to the farmers, ranchers and tribal nations who have dealt with an ongoing threat that disrupted their lives for over a decade,” said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, a grassroots group focused on scuttling the project.

Canada-U.S. relations: TC Energy first proposed the $8 billion pipeline in 2008, saying the 1,200-mile project was crucial to deliver crude from Western Canada to refineries in the Midwest. The Obama administration in 2015 denied a cross-border permit for the pipeline, however, saying the oil it would deliver would exacerbate climate change.

Keystone XL was one of the few issues on which Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed. The Liberal government had planned to continue to advocate for the pipeline.

During a congratulatory call with Biden on November 9th, Trudeau told the incoming president he looked forward to joining forces to fight climate change while co-operating on energy projects like the Keystone XL.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney bet Biden would not cancel a project already under construction when he announced in March that his government had taken a $1.1 billion stake in Keystone XL. Preliminary construction started last fall in Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The provincial government openly mulled a legal intervention last year into a court case that had put pipeline construction on hold and reportedly hired American lobbyists to make its case in Washington.

Stef Feldman, a policy director for Biden’s campaign, told POLITICO in May that the Democrat would “proudly stand in the Roosevelt Room again as President and stop it for good.”

What’s next: In a statement Sunday night, Kenney vowed to work with TC Energy “to use all legal avenues available to protect” Alberta’s interest in the pipeline.

Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

Isabella O’Malley                       January 12, 2021
Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage
Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

While pollution is an omnipresent issue that is impacting essentially every ecosystem on Earth, the problem is not always visible to the naked eye. However, footage of Serbia’s Potpecko Lake depicts a jarring scene — several thousand cubic metres of plastic containers floating on top of the water.

The footage was first published online on January 4, 2021 and environmental activist, Sinisa Lakovic, says that the extent of the plastic pollution is due to decades of accumulating trash at “unsanitary landfills,” as reported by Reuters. Marko Karadzic, a local resident, described the situation to Reuters as “an ecological disaster.”

Several landfills are located upstream from the lake along the Lim River. Potpecko Lake is connected to the waterbody that the dam at the Višegrad Hydroelectric Power Plant uses, and officials are concerned that it could become clogged with garbage.

Serbia’s Environment Minister, Irena Vujovic, said a clean-up would soon commence and stated that several landfalls that contributed to the pollution in Potpecko Lake have been invited to develop a solution that would have long-term benefits.

AQUATIC POLLUTION, NOT JUST AN OCEAN PROBLEM

Images of ocean animals entangled in plastic pollution are the most common impacts that many people think of when considering how the waste we generate impacts aquatic ecosystems. Given that oceans cover more than 70 per cent of Earth’s surface, it is understandable that the spotlight lands on these marine ecosystems, but some experts say that plastic pollution in freshwater lakes and rivers is a topic that is often neglected in research.

lake pollution Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash
lake pollution Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash.  A discarded beer can in Eagle Lake, Mississippi, USA. Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash

 

A 2019 survey conducted by scientists Martín C. M. Blettler and Karl M. Wantzen reviewed 171 published studies that analyzed animal plastic entanglement and found that over 98 per cent focused solely on oceanic environments. Blettler and Wantzen stated while ocean plastic pollution remains a considerable concern, they emphasize the importance of the limited insight we have about freshwater pollution.

In freshwater environments, researchers have documented an increasing trend of plastic becoming part of birds’ nests, which can reduce the survival rates of both the parents and chicks. Microplastics are also being consumed by fish in growing amounts leading to adverse effects. The researchers say that the effects of plastic pollution in water bodies inland are important to study because the waste that is dumped in lakes and rivers ultimately travels to the oceans.

With files from Reuters

Deal reached on project to protect lakes from invasive fish

Deal reached on project to protect lakes from invasive fish

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Michigan, Illinois and a federal agency have agreed on funding the next phase of an initiative to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes by strengthening defenses on a Chicago-area waterway, officials said Thursday.

The two states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will share pre-construction engineering and design costs for the $858 million project at Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Illinois. The structure on the Des Plaines River is a choke point between the Illinois River, which is infested with the invasive carp, and Lake Michigan.

A plan approved by the Corps in 2019 calls for installing a gantlet of technologies to deter approaching fish, including electric barriers and underwater speakers that would blast loud noises, plus an “air bubble curtain.” A specially designed “flushing lock” would wash away carp that might be floating on the water as vessels pass through.

The next step is developing design and engineering specifications, expected to take three to four years and cost about $28.8 million.

Under the new agreement, the Corps will pay $18 million and Michigan $8 million. Illinois will chip in $2.5 million and serve as the “non-federal sponsor” required for such projects.

The federal share of the design and engineering funds still needs to be provided through annual Corps work plans, said Col. Steven M. Sattinger, commander of the Corps’ district office in Rock Island, Illinois.

Both states will collaborate with the Corps as it designs the complex mechanism, which will require thousands of pages of drawings.

Extensive research is still needed for some features, which never have been built to the scale that will be required at Brandon Road, Sattinger said.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” he said during an online news conference.

Four species of carp were imported from Asia in the 1960s and 1970s to clear algae from Deep South sewage ponds and fish farms. They escaped into the Mississippi River and have moved north into dozens of tributaries in Middle America.

Government agencies, advocacy groups and others have long debated how to prevent them from reaching the Great Lakes, where scientists say they could out-compete native species for food and habitat. The lakes region has a fishing industry valued at $7 billion.

“If Asian carp invade the Great Lakes, they would have a devastating impact on our fisheries, tourism and outdoor recreation economies, and way of life across the region,” said Marc Smith, policy director for the National Wildlife Federation.

A shipping canal that forms part of the link between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan has a network of fish-repelling barriers, which the Corps says is effective but critics consider inadequate. The Brandon Road project will provide another layer of protection further downstream.

“Long in planning, we’re pleased to finally put these agreements into action, allowing us to move the project to its next steps – planning and design – and, ultimately, construction,” said Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Once design is complete, building the system will take six to eight years, Sattinger said.

The deal between states that have sometimes quarreled over how to stop the carp is “a model of partnership that we hope to see more of in the future as we work toward a common goal of securing the health and longevity of our states’ greatest natural resource,” said Molly Flanagan, chief operating officer of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Where did COVID-19 come from?

Where did COVID-19 come from?

Elizabeth Weise and Karen Weintraub,         January 16, 2021

 

The coronavirus that conquered the world came from a thumb-sized bat tucked inside a remote Chinese cave. Of this much, scientists are convinced.

Exactly how and when it fled the bat to begin its devastating flight across the globe remain open questions.

In just one year, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has infected 100 million people and killed 2 million, 400,000 of them in the U.S. Answers could stop such a calamity from happening again.

Researchers in China, under government scrutiny, have been investigating since January. This week, a World Health Organization delegation of scientists from 10 different nations finally was allowed in the country to explore the virus’ origins.

“This is important not just for COVID-19, but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential,” Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, said just after the team left for China.

A worker in protective coverings directs members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team on their arrival at the airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. A global team of researchers came to the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

 

It’s not clear how much evidence will remain a year later, and what the team will be able to learn. The Wuhan fish market, seen as a likely breeding ground for the virus, has been scrubbed and shuttered.

But the effort is worth it, infectious disease experts say. Understanding the journey of SARS-CoV-2 may provide insights into how the relationship between humans and animals led to the pandemic, as well as other disease outbreaks including Ebola, Zika and many strains of flu.

A member of the World Health Organization team is screened on arriving at the airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The global team of researchers arrived Thursday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

 

“These are emerging diseases that breach the barrier between animals and humans and cause devastation in human populations,” the WHO’s Mike Ryan said at a Monday news conference. “It is an absolute requirement that we understand that interface and what is driving that dynamic and what specific issues resulted in diseases breaching that barrier.”

The international team is not looking to assign blame, said Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme. If it were, there would be plenty to go around.

“We can blame climate change. We can blame policy decisions made 30 years ago regarding everything from urbanization to the way we exploit the forest,” he said. “You can find people to blame in every level of what we’re doing on this planet.”

Beginnings in a cave

The chain of events that led to the worst global pandemic in a century started with a tiny, insect-eating mammal with the mundane name, Intermediate Horseshoe bat.

The species is part of a family of bats that act as natural reservoirs for coronaviruses, notorious for how easily they mutate and how well they can be transmitted from species to species. The bats aren’t bothered by the viruses. The animals they pass them onto aren’t always so lucky.

Humans are one of those animals.

This happens all the time – a virus harmlessly infects one creature then finds its way to another, mutates and becomes something new. The newly mutated virus can be insignificant but annoying (think common colds, some of which are caused by coronaviruses) or devastating and deadly (think smallpox.)

SARS-CoV-2 is a little of both.

A Horseshoe bat hangs from a net inside an abandoned Israeli army outpost next to the Jordan River in the occupied West Bank, on July 7, 2019.
A Horseshoe bat hangs from a net inside an abandoned Israeli army outpost next to the Jordan River in the occupied West Bank, on July 7, 2019.

 

As many as 40% of those who test positive for COVID-19 have no symptoms at all but 2% of people who get sick die. It’s especially deadly in the elderly.  COVID-19 has killed 1 of every 66 Americans older than 85. Among those infected, some percentage — we don’t yet know how many — cope with crippling long-term symptoms that plague them for months. Future health impacts remain unknown.

The group of related coronaviruses giving rise to SARS-CoV-2 has existed for decades in bats and likely originated more than 40 years ago, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor and expert in viral genomics at the University of California, San Francisco.

SARS-CoV-2 shares 96% of its genetic material with a sample of coronavirus taken in 2013 in Intermediate Horseshoe bats from Yunnan province in China, which suggests the Yunnan virus is its ancestor. How the virus traveled the 1,200 miles from Yunnan to Wuhan remains unknown.

Because the 2013 sample is the only one available, scientists had to undertake genetic analysis to estimate when the bat strain and the strain now circulating among humans diverged. They put the split sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, said Maciej Boni, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, who spent almost a decade working in Asia.

“There’s really not a clear tree where we have forensic evidence to point to exactly where it came from,” said John Connor, a virologist at Boston University who studies emerging infectious diseases. “It looks like it’s a bat-derived virus, and there’s a big question mark after that.”

Scientists simply don’t do enough surveillance of bats and coronavirus to tell.

“We just don’t know because we don’t have any data — we weren’t looking,” said Boni. “Over the last 20 years we haven’t been doing enough sampling.”

Boni is among those who think the virus most likely came directly from bats, possibly infecting miners who work in bat-infested caves or people exposed to bat feces. Others say it more likely spent some time infecting another animal species before leaping to humans.

The original SARS virus, identified in China in 2003, is believed to have passed through civets – a type of nocturnal mammal native to Asia and Africa – though other animals may have been involved.

SARS underwent only a few genetic changes between bats and people, which made its animal roots easier to trace, while SARS-CoV-2 has changed a lot more, Connor said.

With SARS-CoV-2, a suspect is the frequently trafficked scaly anteater, also known as a pangolin. Other possibilities include civets or ferrets or even cats.

“SARS-CoV-2 may originate from live animal markets, but it may also have emerged from any setting in which people come into contact with animals, including farms, pets, or zoos,” Chiu said.

Whatever its path, sometime before November 2019 it became a virus that could easily – far too easily – infect humans.

Not Made in China

Despite a persistent conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a lab, perhaps an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, there’s no evidence to support the claim and plenty to counter it.

In March, a group of researchers found the virus most closely resembled existing bat viruses and was not man-made.

“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” they wrote in the prestigious journal Nature.

No new details have emerged since to change the author minds, said Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, one of the co-authors and a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“Can we exclude the possibility that there was a virus that was present in this lab that somehow got out into either animals or people? No, we can’t do that,” he said. “The only thing we can say is that there’s no evidence that suggests it was deliberately engineered through some sort of gain-of-function experiments.”

Connor said he’s also dubious the virus originated in a lab rather than in nature.

The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.
The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

 

“What laboratory people are really good at doing is making viruses weaker,” said Connor, who is also an investigator at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories.

Viruses, especially RNA viruses like coronaviruses, make tiny mistakes as they reproduce. One person’s nose might contain 10 to a 100,000 copies of the virus, and with so many replications and so many mistakes, it’s plausible chance mutations led to SARS-CoV-2, he said.

“I don’t think we need to look for man-made. I think we see the viruses that we know assaulting us all the time,” Connor said. “We look back to Zika. That wasn’t man-made. Neither was Ebola. Flu keeps coming after us.”

It’s possible to bioengineer a virus, but it’s extremely hard. Anyone doing so would have used a pre-existing virus as the template. The virus that’s now killing millions has novel mutations, many of them, said Chiu.

“We barely know how to manipulate even a few base pairs in a single viral gene,” he said. “The difference between Chinese bat coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2 is more than 3,000 base pairs.”

In some ways, it doesn’t matter where the virus came from, said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. What matters is how we deal with the current situation, which is at a crisis state in the United States.

“When the house is burning down is not the time to start looking for where the matches were,” he said.

Investigation and prevention

If SARS-Cov-2 had been a type of bird flu instead of a coronavirus, the world would have been alerted within days of the first infections. A global surveillance system was established in the 1990s and has been expanded and strengthened, Boni said.

“If a single poultry farmer in Southeast Asia comes down with severe respiratory symptoms, samples are taken and sequenced. That week you know which avian influenza virus it is,” he said. “Farms in neighboring regions are immediately quarantined and the birds may be depopulated. It takes days.”

Setting up something similar for bats and coronaviruses would cost several billion a year globally, said Boni. “It’s not expensive for the benefit we’d get.”

To track SARS-COV-2 as it transferred among species requires analyzing blood collected from the animals, as well as samples from their airways.

Distinguishing between closely related viruses isn’t always so easy.

“We have a special test that can do this if we could get samples out of China,” said Lipkin. He’s been trying for months to do so, and when he attempted to send his own sampling tools into the country the U.S wouldn’t allow it.

“We now have obstruction on both sides,” said Lipkin, who’s been working to get into China himself since early in the outbreak. “I don’t know when that’s going to let up. I’m hoping the Biden administration will feel differently.”

Lipkin’s March paper explored key features of the new virus but nothing more has been learned since about SARS-CoV-2’s earliest days, he said.

Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

 

“We still haven’t had a full post-mortem on what went wrong in China,” said Lipkin, who caught COVID-19 in March in New York and was recently vaccinated.

The U.S. has a very good system of reporting outbreaks, and rapidly publishes information in the CDC’s journal, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly. The Chinese are not as transparent at reporting their public health information.

Increased transparency is one of several changes Lipkin recommends to avoid a repeat of the 2020 disaster.

Wild animal markets and consumption of wildlife continue to pose dangers, he said.

And the world needs to have the ability to respond faster to novel viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Global surveillance would help, as would drugs that can treat a wide spectrum of viruses – maybe one that can address all coronaviruses and another to tackle influenzas.

“These drugs might not be ideal but we should think of them as a finger in the dike,” Lipkin said, so outbreaks won’t get out of hand, the way this one did.

Connor, at Boston University, agrees that effective and transparent public health systems around the world are essential for detecting and preventing outbreaks like COVID-19.

In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, people wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province.
In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, people wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province.

 

While Wuhan may have had a good health care system, that was not the case in West Africa, where a 2014-2016 epidemic of Ebola infected more than 28,000, killed over 11,000 and terrified the world.

“It would be nice for all people to have good health care, not just because it would be nice for them … but for everybody else,” Connor said. “It would be nice to be able to identify: Oh, all of a sudden, five people in one area got sick with something we didn’t know what it was.”

Connor said it’s pointless to try to predict all the ways in which a virus now infecting animals could make the leap to humans. A much better approach, he said, is to focus on the viruses that do emerge.

“What matters is how good we are at responding quickly,” he said.

The race is now between the speed of mutations and the speed of vaccination, said Chiu.

Even for a typically slow Sunday afternoon Grand Central Terminal in New York City was quieter than usual March 15, 2020 as Coronavirus concerns kept travelers and tourists off the streets and away from popular destinations in the city.

 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says it may take up to 85% of Americans being vaccinated to protect the population. Reaching those numbers will be challenging considering pervasive vaccine hesitancy and a slow, complicated roll out.

In the meantime, public health measures to stop the spread – masking, social distancing and handwashing – are essential, experts repeat.

“We have to reduce the number of infections before the virus has a chance to mutate in such a way that it can evade drugs and vaccines,” said Chiu. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Contact Elizabeth Weise at eweise@usatoday.com and Karen Weintraub at kweintraub@usatoday.com.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

Nearly 100 million Chinese people supplied drinking water with ‘unsafe’ levels of toxic chemicals

Nearly 100 million Chinese people supplied drinking water with ‘unsafe’ levels of toxic chemicals

Echo Xie                                 

Drinking water provided to nearly 100 million people in China has levels of toxic chemicals that exceed safe limits, researchers have found.

A team from Tsinghua University monitored the levels of per and polyfluoroalkyls (PFAS) – man-made chemicals used in everything from fabrics to pesticides – using data from previous studies.

By analyzing data from 526 drinking water samples across 66 cities with a total population of 450 million, the study found that the concentration of PFAS in more than 20 per cent of the studied cities – 16 in total – exceeded safe levels.

Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.

China has no national safety standards, so the study used the US state of Vermont’s regulations as the benchmark.

A chemical factory is dismantled along the Yangtze River in Yichang City as part of an effort to reduce pollution in the area. Photo: Xinhua alt=A chemical factory is dismantled along the Yangtze River in Yichang City as part of an effort to reduce pollution in the area. Photo: Xinhua

The cities with high levels included Wuxi, Hangzhou and Suzhou in eastern China and Foshan in the southern province of Guangdong. Major cities including Beijing and Shanghai were under the limit.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe last Tuesday and was the first comprehensive study reviewing PFAS levels in Chinese drinking water.

In general, eastern, southern and southwest China had higher levels of PFAS compared with other regions.

The mean concentration of PFASs in eastern China was 2.6 times that of the country’s north, which the report’s authors attributed to intensive industrial activity and high population density.

Roland Weber, a co-author of the study and German consultant on persistent organic pollutants, said that some PFAS were more dangerous than others, especially the chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS, which have been linked to a variety of health risks.

“The European Food Safety Agency recently highlighted four PFAS – including PFOA and PFOS – as particularly problematic and set a low tolerable intake limit [the daily amount deemed safe] ,” he said.

The study found extremely high levels of PFOA and PFOS in three Chinese cities in the Yangtze River Basin – Zigong, Jiujiang and Lianyungang – which were attributed to the presence of fluoro-chemical plants and industries that use multiple PFAS, such as leather, textile and paper manufacturing.

Weber said more toxicity assessment needs to be done on the thousands of PFAS in use, because there are still many unknown risks and scientists suggest limiting them to essential uses.

The toxic chemicals can be found in everything from stain-resistant textiles, greaseproof food packaging, firefighting foam, personal care products, pharmaceuticals and pesticides.

“Many PFAS are water soluble and do not degrade possibly for centuries and longer and are therefore called ‘forever chemicals’. If you have contaminated ground water used for irrigation, it will go into your plant, your food and your cattle,” said Weber.

The two toxic chemicals – PFOA and PFOS – do not break down in the human body or environment and can accumulate over time, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

They were listed in the annex of the Stockholm Convention as persistent organic pollutants, or “forever chemicals”, since they are considered to be harmful to health and the environment.

China is now one of the largest manufacturers and consumers of PFAS but it has no guidelines for their presence in drinking water.

But it is a party to the Stockholm Convention, which aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants and is working to phase out the use of PFOS.

But Weber said PFOA had only been listed under the convention in 2019 – a decade after PFOS – and China has not yet ratified this section.

In plans released in June, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment vowed to step up the monitoring of new pollutants in surface water.

Weber added that China needs to analyze drinking water as well as groundwater and contaminated sites to understand the scale of the problem and then draw up plans to tackle it.

“Europe and the United States are facing large challenges with monitoring and controlling PFAS contaminated sites and I think it is now the right time that China is moving forward, making science based limits and then cleaning the drinking water and control emissions from industries and other uses,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century.

Biden picks geneticist as science adviser, puts in Cabinet

Biden picks geneticist as science adviser, puts in Cabinet

January 15, 2021
1 of 3
In this Sept. 7, 2010, file photo, Eric Steven Lander, head of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, gestures as he delivers a speech during the forum Mexico XXI Century, organized by the Telmex Foundation, in Mexico City. President-elect Joe Biden picked a pioneering geneticist to be his science advisor and elevated the job to his Cabinet. Friday’s announcement of Lander won wide praise (AP Photo/Claudio Cruz, File)

 

President-elect Joe Biden announced Friday that he has chosen a pioneer in mapping the human genome — the so-called “book of life” — to be his chief science adviser and is elevating the top science job to a Cabinet position.

Biden nominated Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who was the lead author of the first paper announcing the details of the human genome, as director of Office of Science and Technology Policy and adviser on science. He is the first life scientist to have that job. His predecessor is a meteorologist.

Saying “science will always be at the forefront of my administration,” Biden said he is boosting the science advisor post to Cabinet level, a first in White House history.

The president-elect also said he is retaining National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, who worked with Lander on the human genome project, and named two prominent female scientists to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Frances Arnold, a California Institute of Technology chemical engineer who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and MIT vice president for research and geophysics professor Maria Zuber will co-chair the outside science advisory council. Lander held that position during Obama administration.

Collins, in an email statement, called Lander “brilliant, visionary, exceptionally creative and highly effective in aspiring others.”

“I predict he will have a profound transformational effect on American science,” Collins said.

The job as director of science and technology policy requires Senate confirmation.

Science organizations were also quick to praise Lander and the promotion of the science post.

“Elevating (the science adviser) role to member in the President’s Cabinet clearly signals the administration’s intent to involve scientific expertise in every policy discussion,” said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society.

Biden chose Princeton’s Alondra Nelson, a social scientist who studies science, technology and social inequality, as deputy science policy chief.

Lander, also a mathematician, is a professor of biology at both Harvard and MIT and his work has been cited nearly half a million times in scientific literature, one of most among scientists. He has won numerous science prizes, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and a Breakthrough Prize, and is one of Pope Francis’ scientific advisors.

Lander has said in talks that an opportunity to explain science is his “Achilles’ heel”: “I love teaching and more than that, I firmly believe that no matter what I do in my own scientific career, the most important impact that I could ever have on the world is going to be through my students.”

Study: Warming already baked in will blow past climate goals

Associated Press

Study: Warming already baked in will blow past climate goals

 

The amount of baked-in global warming, from carbon pollution already in the air, is enough to blow past international agreed upon goals to limit climate change, a new study finds.

But it’s not game over because, while that amount of warming may be inevitable, it can be delayed for centuries if the world quickly stops emitting extra greenhouse gases from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, the study’s authors say.

For decades, scientists have talked about so-called “committed warming” or the increase in future temperature based on past carbon dioxide emissions that stay in the atmosphere for well over a century. It’s like the distance a speeding car travels after the brakes are applied.

But Monday’s study in the journal Nature Climate Change calculates that a bit differently and now figures the carbon pollution already put in the air will push global temperatures to about 2.3 degrees Celsius (4.1 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming since pre-industrial times.

Previous estimates, including those accepted by international science panels, were about a degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) less than that amount of committed warming.

International climate agreements set goals of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, with the more ambitious goal of limiting it to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) added in Paris in 2015. The world has already warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit).

“You’ve got some … global warming inertia that’s going to cause the climate system to keep warming, and that’s essentially what we’re calculating,” said study co-author Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University. “Think about the climate system like the Titanic. It’s hard to turn the ship when you see the icebergs.”

Dessler and colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Nanjing University in China calculated committed warming to take into account that the world has warmed at different rates in different places and that places that haven’t warmed as fast are destined to catch up.

Places such as the Southern Ocean, surrounding Antarctica are a bit cooler, and that difference creates low-lying clouds that reflect more sun away from earth, keeping these places cooler. But this situation can’t keep going indefinitely because physics dictates that cooler locations will warm up more and when they do, the clouds will dwindle and more heating will occur, Dessler said.

Previous studies were based on the cooler spots staying that way, but Dessler and colleagues say that’s not likely.

Outside experts said the work is based on compelling reasoning, but want more research to show that it’s true. Breakthrough Institute climate scientist Zeke Hausfather said the new work fits better with climate models than observational data.

Just because the world is bound to get more warming than international goals, that doesn’t mean all is lost in the fight against global warming, said Dessler, who cautioned against what he called “climate doomers.”

If the world gets to net zero carbon emissions soon, 2 degrees of global warming could be delayed enough so that it won’t happen for centuries, giving society time to adapt or even come up with technological fixes, he said.

“If we don’t, we’re going to blow through (climate goals) in a few decades,” Dessler said. “It’s really the rate of warming that makes climate change so terrible. If we got a few degrees over 100,000 years, that would not be that big a deal. We can deal with that. But a few degrees over 100 years is really bad.”