COVID Variants Evolving to Improved Airborne Transmission

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A new study found that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 shed significant numbers of virus particles in their breath – and those infected with the Alpha variant put 43 to 100 times more virus into the air than people infected with the original strains. 

The researchers also found that loose-fitting cloth and surgical masks reduced the amount of virus that gets into the air around infected people by about half. The study was published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

“Our latest study provides further evidence of the importance of airborne transmission,” said Dr Don Milton, Professor, Environmental Health, University of Maryland School of Public Health. “We know that the Delta variant circulating now is even more contagious than the Alpha variant. Our research indicates that the variants just keep getting better at traveling through the air, so we must provide better ventilation and wear tight-fitting masks, in addition to vaccination, to help stop spread of the virus.”

The numbers of airborne virus particles coming from infections with the Alpha variant (the dominant strain circulating at the time this study was conducted) was much more (18 times more) than could be explained by the increased amounts of virus picked up in nasal swabs and saliva. 
Doctoral student Jianyu Lai, a lead author of the study, explained: “We already knew that virus in saliva and nasal swabs was increased in Alpha variant infections. Virus from the nose and mouth might be transmitted by sprays of large droplets up close to an infected person. But, our study shows that the virus in exhaled aerosols is increasing even more.” These major increases in airborne virus from Alpha infections occurred before the arrival of the Delta variant, suggesting that the virus is evolving to have improved airborne transmission.

To test the efficacy of masks in reducing transmission, the researchers measured how much SARS-CoV-2 is exhaled into the air with and without wearing a cloth or surgical mask. They found that face coverings significantly reduced virus-laden particles in the air around the person with COVID by about 50%.

Co-author Dr Jennifer German said, “The take-home messages from this paper are that the coronavirus can be in your exhaled breath, is getting better at being in your exhaled breath, and using a mask reduces the chance of you breathing it on others.” This means that a layered approach to control measures (including improved ventilation, increased filtration, UV air sanitation, and tight-fitting masks, in addition to vaccination) is critical to protect people in public-facing jobs and indoor spaces.

Source: University of Maryland

New Drug Targets for Memory Loss

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Researchers have identified specific drug targets within memory-encoding neural circuits, opening up possibilities for new treatments of a range of brain disorders.

Memory loss is a main feature of a number of neurological and psychiatric disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Presently, there are few, very limited memory loss treatments and the search for safe and effective drug therapies has, until now, borne little fruit.

The research was done in collaboration with colleagues at the international biopharmaceutical company Sosei Heptares. The findings, published in Nature Communications, identify specific receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that re-route information flowing through memory circuits in the hippocampus. Acetylcholine is released in the brain during learning and is critical for the acquisition of new memories. Until now, the only effective treatment for the symptoms of cognitive or memory impairment seen in diseases such as Alzheimer’s is using drugs that broadly boost acetylcholine. However, this leads to multiple adverse side effects. The discovery of specific receptor targets that have the potential to provide the positive effects whilst avoiding the negative ones is promising.

Lead author Professor Jack Mellor from the University of Bristol’s Center for Synaptic Plasticity, said: “These findings are about the fundamental processes that occur in the brain during the encoding of memory and how they may be regulated by brain state or drugs targeting specific receptor proteins. In the long-term, the discovery of these specific targets opens up avenues and opportunities for the development of new treatments for the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions with prominent cognitive impairments. The academic-industry partnership is important for these discoveries and we hope to continue working together on these projects.”

Dr Miles Congreve, Chief Scientific Officer at Sosei Heptares, added: “These important studies have helped us to design and select new, exquisitely targeted therapeutic agents that mimic the effects of acetylcholine at specific muscarinic receptors, without triggering the unwanted side effects of earlier and less-well targeted treatments. This approach has the exciting potential to improve memory and cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.”

“It is fascinating how the brain prioritises different bits of information, working out what is important to encode in memory and what can be discarded. We know there must be mechanisms to pull out the things that are important to us but we know very little about how these processes work. Our future program of work aims to reveal how the brain does this using acetylcholine in tandem with other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline,” said Professor Mellor.

Source: University of Bristol

Menstrual Changes After COVID Vaccinations

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In an article in the BMJ, authors argue that menstrual changes after COVID vaccination are plausible and should be investigated. 

Listed common side effects of COVID vaccination include a sore arm, fever, fatigue, and myalgia. However, changes to periods and unexpected vaginal bleeding are not listed, and primary care clinicians and those in the reproductive health field are seeing more and more people who have experienced these events shortly after vaccination.

More than 30 000 reports of these events had been made to the UK;s surveillance scheme for adverse drug reactions by 2 September 2021, across all COVID vaccines currently offered.

Most post-vaccination changes to periods return to normal, and there is no evidence that COVID vaccination adversely affects fertility. In clinical trials, there were similar rates for unintended pregnancies in vaccinated and unvaccinated groups. In fertility clinics, fertility measures and pregnancy rates are similar in vaccinated and unvaccinated patients. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says that there are few reported that 

Menstrual changes have been reported after both mRNA and adenovirus vectored COVID vaccines, suggesting that, if there is a connection, it is likely to be a result of the immune response to vaccination rather than a specific vaccine component. Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations have also been associated with menstrual changes. Indeed, the menstrual cycle can be affected by immune activation from various stimuli, including viral infection: one study found about a quarter of menstruating women with COVID experienced menstrual disruption.

Biologically plausible mechanisms linking immune stimulation with menstrual changes include immunological influences on the hormones driving the menstrual cycle or effects mediated by immune cells in the lining of the uterus, which are involved in the cyclical build-up and breakdown of this tissue. Research may also help understand the mechanism.

Though the period changes are short lived, there is need for adequate research. Vaccine hesitancy among young women is largely driven by false claims that COVID vaccines could harm their chances of future pregnancy. Failing to thoroughly investigate reports of menstrual changes after vaccination is likely to fuel these fears. If a link between vaccination and menstrual changes is confirmed, this information will allow people to plan for potentially altered cycles. Clear and trusted information is particularly important for those who rely on being able to predict their menstrual cycles to either achieve or avoid pregnancy.

In terms of management, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the MHRA recommend that anyone reporting a change in periods persisting over several cycles, or new vaginal bleeding after the menopause, should be managed according to the usual clinical guidelines for these conditions.

The authors conclude by stating there is an important lesson in that the effects of medical interventions on menstruation should not be an afterthought in future research. In clinical trials, participants are unlikely to report changes to periods unless specifically asked, so in future trials, information about menstrual cycles and other vaginal bleeding should be actively solicited.

Source: The BMJ

Attenuated Virus Confers Broader Flu Protection

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A mouse study using both attenuated and inactivated forms of influenza has helped explain why people vaccinated with the inactivated virus still occasionally end up contracting the illness. The finding should help researchers develop vaccines that offer broad protection against viruses.

Influenza is a major global health burden, with the World Health Organization estimating that it causes one billion cases annually. Each year, vaccines are developed that offer some protection against infection. But the influenza virus is a moving target that is constantly mutating, and so vaccines can lose their effectiveness as a season progresses.

Influenza vaccines commonly come in two forms: inactivated vaccines (including component vaccines) and live attenuated vaccines. Live vaccines confer broader protection against variants than inactivated vaccines, but side effects such as fevers and headaches are more common. A result they have yet to be approved in some countries. Live vaccines induce the production of broadly reactive antibodies, but until now, scientists didn’t know why.

In a recent study, Masato Kubo of the RIKEN Center for Integrative Medical Sciences and his co-workers have discovered two processes that live vaccines induce in mice that together account for their broader protection.

They found that, like the virus itself, the live vaccine virus causes the virus to replicate deep in the lungs, which in turn induces a structural change in the virus haemagglutinin, a mushroom-shaped protein on the surface of the virus involved in infecting cells. This structural change exposes previously hidden regions of antigens that the immune system can recognise.

Next, germinal cells are activated by interleukin 4 (IL-4), a cytokine heavily involved in regulating antibody production. IL-4 is derived from special T cells known as follicular helper T cells. This activation causes a minor population of B cells to proliferate and it is these B cells that are responsible for generating broadly protective antibodies.

The role of IL-4 in inducing the broad immune response came as a surprise. “Until now there had been no direct evidence to show the importance of IL-4,” says Kubo. “That was one of the surprises of this study for me.”

“We believe both processes are needed for generating broadly active antibodies: viral duplication in the lungs and expansion of the minor population of B cells,” says Kubo. “These two processes mostly likely occur when a person is infected by the influenza virus itself.”

The team now plans to see if there are similar mechanisms for other viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

Source: RIKEN

Nelson Mandela Bay Area Hit by Rabies Outbreak

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An outbreak of rabies has hit the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, with a nine-year-old Gqeberha boy being its first victim so far.

The Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality (NMBMM) issued a warning calling on residents to be vigilant and to take their domestic pets for rabies vaccinations, following the death of a boy last weekend who was bitten by a dog. Health-e News received confirmation from NMBMM that the nine-year-old boy died at the Dora Nginza Hospital on Friday last week.

“We have learnt with sadness of the passing of the boy from Motherwell, who died due to rabies. We have the family in our prayers,” said Acting Mayor Luxolo Namette.

The municipality’s health services directorate deputy director Dr Patrick Nodwele said vaccinating domestic pets can be the most effective way of preventing rabies transmission to humans.

“The boy passed at Dora Nginza Hospital where it was established that he had been bitten by a dog. Our health officials, together with the Department of Agrarian Reform, have been busy these last couple months vaccinating dogs and cats in an effort to curb the virus as we know that rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease and post-bite vaccinations save lives,” Dr Nodwele told Health-e News.

Rabies causes viral encephalitis which kills up to 70 000 people a year around the world. Infected animal saliva transmits viral encephalitis to humans. Rabies is one of the oldest known diseases in history with cases dating back to 4000 years ago. For most of human history, a bite from a rabid animal was uniformly fatal. In the past, people were so scared of rabies that after being bitten by a potentially rabid animal, many would commit suicide. 

Rabies cases rose significantly over August and September, he added, which is why they are calling on residents to take their domestic pets for vaccinations. The outbreak is spread throughout the entire Nelson Mandela metro region and Nodwele said that 61 rabies specimens submitted for testing all came back positive.

So far 5254 dogs and 438 cats have been vaccinated across the metro. The municipality from time to time issues a domestic pets vaccination schedule, and is calling on residents to observe the schedule so that they bring their animals for vaccination. A vaccination and community education programme is also being run.

Dr Nodwele said the incubation period of rabies is two to three months, though with factors such as bite location and viral load, it can also vary from one week to a year.

“Initial symptoms include a fever and pain, and unusual or unexplained tingling, pricking or burning sensations at the wound site. As the virus spreads through the body to the central nervous system, progressive and fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord develops,” Dr Nodwele explained.

Source: Health-e News

Nasal COVID Vaccines Will Greatly Reduce Transmission

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Though great progress has been made in developing intramuscular COVID vaccines, as yet nothing provides mucosal immunity in the nose, the first barrier against the virus encounters before it travels down to the lungs.

In terms of both immune cell deployment and immunoglobulin production, the mucosal immune system is by far the largest component of the entire immune system, having evolved to provide protection at the main sites of infectious threat: the mucosae.

In iScience, Navin Varadarajan, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and colleagues, report the development of an intranasal subunit vaccine that provides durable local immunity against inhaled pathogens.

“Mucosal vaccination can stimulate both systemic and mucosal immunity and has the advantage of being a non-invasive procedure suitable for immunization of large populations,” explained Prof Varadarajan. “However, mucosal vaccination has been hampered by the lack of efficient delivery of the antigen and the need for appropriate adjuvants that can stimulate a robust immune response without toxicity.”

To get around this, Prof Varadarajan worked with Xinli Liu, associate professor of pharmaceutics, and an expert in nanoparticle delivery. Prof Liu’s team packaged the agonist of the stimulator of interferon genes (STING) inside liposomal particles to create an adjuvant called NanoSTING. 

“NanoSTING has a small particle size around 100 nanometres, which exhibits significantly different physical and chemical properties to the conventional adjuvant,” said Prof Liu.

“We used NanoSTING as the adjuvant for intranasal vaccination and single-cell RNA-sequencing to confirm the nasal-associated lymphoid tissue as an inductive site upon vaccination. Our results show that the candidate vaccine formulation is safe, produces rapid immune responses—within seven days—and elicits comprehensive immunity against SARS-CoV-2,” said Prof Varadarajan.

Intramuscular vaccines have a fundamental limitation in that they are not designed to elicit mucosal immunity. As shown in previous work with respiratory pathogens like influenza, sterilising immunity to virus reinfection requires adaptive immune responses in the respiratory system.

The nasal vaccine will also help the equitable global distribution of vaccines, according to the researchers. Many smaller countries have only vaccinated a small percentage of their population, and outbreaks continue. These outbreaks and viral spread are known to facilitate viral evolution, ultimately leading to decreased efficacy of all vaccines.

“Equitable distribution requires vaccines that are stable and that can be shipped easily. As we have shown, each of our components, the protein (lyophilised) and the adjuvant (NanoSTING) are stable for over 11 months and can be stored and shipped without the need for freezing,” said Prof Varadarajan.

Source: University of Houston

COVID Hit South Africa Harder Than Expected Despite Preparedness

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New research finds African countries, assessed as being least vulnerable to an epidemic were the worst affected by COVID, particularly South Africa.

A team of researchers from the NIHR Global Health Research Unit Tackling Infections to Benefit Africa (TIBA) worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region to identify factors affecting mortality rates during Africa’s first two COVID waves and the timing of the first reported cases. The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, found that countries with greater urban populations and strong international travel links were worst affected by the pandemic. Mortality rates and levels of restrictions, such as lockdowns and travel bans, were found to be lowest in countries previously thought to be at greatest risk from COVID.

Professor Mark Woolhouse, TIBA Director, who co-led the study, said, “Our study shows very clearly that multiple factors influence the extent to which African countries are affected by COVID. These findings challenge our understanding of vulnerability to pandemics.

“Our results show that we should not equate high levels of preparedness and resilience with low vulnerability.

“That seemingly well-prepared, resilient countries have fared worst during the pandemic is not only true in Africa; the result is consistent with a global trend that more developed countries have often been particularly hard hit by COVID.”

Among 44 countries of the WHO African Region with available data, South Africa had the highest mortality rate during the first wave between May and August 2020, at 33.3 deaths recorded per 100k population. Cape Verde and Eswatini had the next highest rates at 17.5 and 8.6 deaths per 100k, respectively. At 0.26 deaths recorded per 100,000, the lowest mortality rate was in Uganda.

South Africa also recorded the highest mortality rate during the second wave between December 2020 and February 2021, at 55.4 deaths per 100,000. Eswatini and Botswana recorded rates of 39.8 and 17.7 deaths per 100,000, respectively. The lowest rate was in Mauritius, which recorded no deaths during the second wave.

“The early models which predicted how COVID would lead to a massive number of cases in Africa were largely the work of institutions not from our continent. This collaboration between researchers in Africa and Europe underlines the importance of anchoring analysis on Africa’s epidemics firmly here,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa and co-author. “We can no longer focus our understanding of disease transmission purely on the characteristics of a virus—COVID operates within a social context which has a major impact on its spread.”

Countries with high rates of HIV were also more likely to have higher mortality rates. This may be because people with HIV often have other health conditions that put them at greater risk from COVID, the team suggests.

The weak association between mortality rate and the timing or severity of government-imposed social restrictions shows the varied impact and enforcement across the region, making a consistent impact pattern difficult to discern. Restrictions during peaks of infection are well documented to have interrupted transmission in the region.

The findings show that the earliest recorded cases of COVID were in countries where most people live in urban areas, with strong international travel links and greater testing capacity. Algeria was the first of 47 African countries to report a case, on 25 February 2020. Most countries had recorded cases by late March 2020, with Lesotho the last to report one, on 14 May 2020.

Higher death rates were observed during the second wave, compared with the first. The infection peak during the second wave was also higher, with 675 deaths across the continent on 18 January 2021 compared with 323 during the first wave peak on 5 August 2020. Potential under-reporting was accounted for in the analysis.

Source: University of Edinburgh

Plant Virus-based Treatment Protects Against Lung Tumours

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Using a virus that grows in black-eyed pea plants, nanoengineers developed a new treatment that could keep metastatic cancers at bay from the lungs. 

Not only did the treatment slow tumour growth in the lungs of mice with either metastatic breast cancer or melanoma, it also prevented or drastically minimised the spread of these cancers to the lungs of healthy mice that were challenged with the disease. The research was published in Advanced Science.

Researchers developed an experimental treatment that combats metastatic spread. This involves a plant virus called the cowpea mosaic virus, harmless to animals and humans, but which the body still registers as a foreign invader, thus triggering an immune response that could also boost the body’s cancer-fighting ability.

The idea is to use the plant virus to help the body’s immune system recognise and destroy cancer cells in the lungs. The virus itself is not infectious in our bodies, but it has all these danger signals that alarm immune cells to go into attack mode and search for a pathogen, said Nicole Steinmetz, professor of nanoengineering at the University of California San Diego.

To draw this immune response to lung tumours, Prof Steinmetz’s lab engineered nanoparticles made from the cowpea mosaic virus to target a protein in the lungs. The protein, called S100A9, is expressed and secreted by immune cells that help fight infection in the lungs. Overexpression of S100A9 has been observed to play a role in tumour growth and spread.

“For our immunotherapy to work in the setting of lung metastasis, we need to target our nanoparticles to the lung,” said Prof Steinmetz. “Therefore, we created these plant virus nanoparticles to home in on the lungs by making use of S100A9 as the target protein. Within the lung, the nanoparticles recruit immune cells so that the tumors don’t take.”

“Because these nanoparticles tend to localise in the lungs, they can change the tumor microenvironment there to become more adept at fighting off cancer — not just established tumors, but future tumors as well,” said Eric Chung, a bioengineering PhD student in Steinmetz’s lab who is one of the co-first authors on the paper.

To make the nanoparticles, the researchers infected black-eyed pea plants with cowpea mosaic virus, and harvested the virus in the form of ball-shaped nanoparticles. They then fixed S100A9-targeting molecules to the particles’ surfaces.

The researchers performed both prevention and treatment studies. In the prevention studies, they first injected the plant virus nanoparticles into the bloodstreams of healthy mice, and then later injected either triple negative breast cancer or melanoma cells into these mice. Treated mice showed a dramatic reduction in the cancers spreading to their lungs compared to untreated mice.

In the treatment studies, the researchers administered the nanoparticles to mice with metastatic tumours in their lungs. The treated mice exhibited smaller lung tumours and survived longer than untreated mice.

Prof Steinmetz envisions that the treatment could be useful after tumourectomy. “It wouldn’t be meant as an injection that’s given to everyone to prevent lung tumours. Rather, it would be given to patients who are at high risk of their tumors growing back as a metastatic disease, which often manifests in the lung. This would offer their lungs protection against cancer metastasis,” she said.

More detailed immunotoxicity and pharmacology studies are needed before this can progress to a treatment. Future studies will also explore combining this with standard cancer therapies such as chemotherapy.

Source: University of California – San Diego

Immune System Mutation Found in Tree-man Syndrome

Cryo-electron microscopy structure of the human papillomavirus. Source: Wikimedia Commons CC0

A new study explores why some extremely rare cases of human papilloma virus (HPV) infections cause horn-like growths on the skin, a condition known as tree-man syndrome

Infection with HPV is extremely common, with most people catching it at some point and not even being aware of it due to a robust immune response, though some may experience skin or genital warts. Why only a handful of individuals react to it by developing tree-man syndrome was not well understood.

To find out why this strikes a handful and not others, Rockefeller’s Jean-Laurent Casanova examines the genetics of an otherwise healthy patient who contracted a severe case of tree-man syndrome and several family members who exhibited milder reactions to HPV. Casanova’s team identified a mutation that affects one’s reaction to HPV by decreasing the production of CD28, a molecule within the immune system that plays an important role in activating pathogen-fighting T cells.

Given the purported importance of CD28 to the immune system, the scientists were surprised that this CD28-deficient individual was healthy prior to contracting tree-man syndrome. “CD28 is thought of as a pillar of T cell immunity,” says Casanova. “The fact that this patient was otherwise healthy suggests that CD28 is largely redundant in human health. Something else is able to step up to provide protection against other infections.”

The findings, published in Cell, form a small part of Casanova’s larger work, which continues to demonstrate that the severity of  influenza, tuberculosis, COVID, and other diseases, is not solely dependent on the pathogen itself, but on genetics of the host, too.

Source: Rockerfeller University

Study Links Poor Sleep to Arrhythmias

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A large observational study linked poor sleep to arrhythmias, although genetic risk factors for rhythm problems appeared to lessen the association.

The results, published in the American College of Cardiology, show that best self-reported sleeps (getting 7-8 hours etc) had a 29% lower risk of developing atrial fibrillation or flutter and a 35% lower risk of bradyarrhythmia compared with those with the worst sleep patterns (eg, being a night owl, sleeping too little, snoring, and having insomnia or daytime drowsiness).

The ventricular arrhythmia risk fell away after demographic, lifestyle, and genetic risk factors were accounted for.

Together with previous research linking a healthy sleep pattern to reduced cardiovascular disease and heart failure risks, the findings, according to the researchers, “emphasise the importance of improving the overall sleep behaviours in the prevention of cardiovascular disease at an early stage among the high-risk populations”.

Being reversible, the findings support the idea of better sleep for arrhythmia prevention.

“However, rest assured, we must not yet lose sleep over their findings,” cautioned Alan Kadish, MD, and Jason Jacobson, MD, in an accompanying editorial. They drew attention to a number of limitations, making the findings more theoretical than currently practicable.

Despite the study’s more sophisticated approach, “a major limitation is that arrhythmia diagnoses were obtained from diagnostic codes,” they noted. Furthermore, arrhythmias are subject to significant variability.
Arrhythmia prevention doesn’t mean cardiovascular disease prevention, they added. “[N]ot all arrhythmias have the same significance, and many are the consequence (not cause) of cardiovascular disease,” they wrote. “Alternatively, sleep disorders and arrhythmias may both simply be indicators of declining health overall and not causally linked.”

The researchers proposed potential mechanisms of action including disrupted autonomic nervous balance of sympathetic nervous and vagal outflows and metabolic changes.

The editorialists pointed out the interesting finding that genetic predisposition to atrial fibrillation significantly modified the associations. Good self-reported sleep and low genetic risk together presented a 46% lower risk of atrial fibrillation than a poor sleep pattern plus high genetic risk.

Progressively poorer sleep health scores were associated with higher incidences of atrial fibrillation and bradyarrhythmias.

Sleeping 7 to 8 hours per day, infrequent or no insomnia, and no frequent daytime sleepiness were each linked to lower arrhythmia risk.

Source: MedPage Today