Research teams around the world race to develop COVID vaccine

Private-public partnerships work on developing effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Research teams around the globe are working hard to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which has infected more than 5.9 million people worldwide and caused approximately 356,000 deaths since its first outbreak in Wuhan, China, late last year.

Formally known as SARS-CoV-2, the virus is part of the coronavirus family, named for the spiky proteins on their surfaces that resemble the points of a crown. The Latin word for crown is “corona.”

Coronaviruses affect birds and mammals. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and  Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are also caused by coronaviruses.

When a person or animal is infected, genetic material inside COVID-19’s round core is injected from the spikes into a host’s vulnerable cells, causing the virus to take over those cells and use them to replicate itself.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 169 efforts are underway worldwide in pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine, but many researchers believe an effective one will not be developed and become available to the public until sometime in 2021.

Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said vaccine development usually takes approximately 20 years.

For example, the development of a vaccine for human papilloma virus took 26 years, and creation of one for rotavirus took 25 years, he noted.

Because more than 100 research groups are currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine, with some already testing them on people, the process this time will be much quicker.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced the launch of “Operation Warp Speed (OWS),” a public-private partnership aimed at accelerating the development,production, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021.

However, most experts believe that date is overly optimistic and do not envision vaccines becoming available before the spring of 2021 and possibly not until the fall of that year.

Vaccines work by exposing a person to proteins of the virus known as antigens, empowering their “memory cells” to recognize the virus upon exposure and activate a strong immune reaction.

Several methods are used to expose individuals to these antigens. Some vaccines inject people with the whole virus in a dead or damaged form. Others take the gene that codes for the antigen and place that into a less harmful virus that is then injected into a person.

Newer vaccine techniques, still considered experimental, use the RNA or DNA that codes for the antigen and places them inside a membrane with which people are injected.

While these new techniques take less time producing a vaccine, they have not yet been approved for public use.

Vaccines typically take a long time to produce because their development requires several phases to assure they are safe for people. Phase 1  involves testing for safety and the exact dose needed. Phase 2 involves testing on a larger group compared with a control group while Phase 3 requires the time needed for enough people to be naturally exposed to the virus.

To date, none of the possible vaccines are in Phase 3. The majority have not even reached Phase 1 and are still in the pre-clinical stages.

Among the leading efforts is Moderna, a biotech company that began working on a vaccine just three days after scientists sequenced the virus’s genome. The company has not fully released its test results but reports eight volunteers given a COVID-19 RNA vaccine developed the necessary antibody responses.

Merck, an American pharmaceutical company, is working with the non-profit research group IAVI on a vaccine similar to its Ebola Zaire virus vaccine, the first for that disease approved for people. The company and its partner have pledged to make any vaccine they develop “accessible and affordable” around the world.

Currently, Merck is in the process of acquiring Themis, a company that focuses on vaccines.

CanSino, a Chinese company, is conducting Phase 1 clinical trials with a genetically engineered adenovirus vaccine modified with COVID-19’s spikes. While this triggered an immune reaction in 108 healthy people, its weakness is that adenoviruses, which cause the common cold, are already widespread among the population, meaning many already have immunity to them.

The company’s next step is a Phase 2 trial with 500 adults that will take six months.

Sinovac, another Chinese company, is pursuing the standard route of a vaccine made up of an inactivated form of the virus.

Oxford University, which is partnering with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, is also working on an adenovirus-based vaccine known as AZD1222 and claims the group can produce one billion doses if its vaccine is successful. With a $1 billion infusion from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), they are now conducting a Phase 3 trial involving 30,000 participants.

A vaccine Oxford developed alone via its Jenner Institute, ChAdOx1, protected rhesus monkeys from getting pneumonia after being infected with COVID-19 but failed to prevent them from contracting the virus. That is currently in Phase 1 trials using more than 1,000 volunteers.

Johnson and Johnson, which has the capability of producing large quantities of vaccines, plans to start Phase 1 trials in September. Together with its subsidiary Janssen, it is working on a genetically modified adenovirus vaccine.

Inovio is working on a DNA vaccine candidate, which has been successful in mice and guinea pigs and is now in the Phase 1 study using 40 volunteers.

A team of researchers at Harvard University is also working on various DNA vaccines, a new technology they are testing on rhesus macaque monkeys.

Curevac said it plans to start Phase 2/3 clinical trials of an mRNA vaccine on humans for a vaccine starting in June while Pfizer and BioNTech announced it has started Phase 1/2 trials of an mRNA vaccine on humans in the US and Germany.

These are just a few of the vaccine research projects underway by pharmaceutical companies and research institutes worldwide.

Air pollution is down, due to Coronavirus

The overall effect represents the “largest-scale experiment ever” in what reducing industrial emissions could do for our planet.

The pandemic that has killed more than 30,000 people across the globe has indirectly caused a significant drop in air pollution worldwide, according to European Space Agency satellite images. The images show reductions in smog throughout Europe and Asia, which researchers attribute to widespread shutdowns in industrial activity.

The overall effect represents the “largest-scale experiment ever” in what reducing industrial emissions could do for our planet, said Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester. He suggested that the resulting lower pollution offers a glimpse at life in a future low-carbon economy.

“Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved,” Monks said.

The images came from the ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite and showed that levels of nitrogen dioxide levels over European and Asian cities and industrial areas were markedly lower over the last six weeks than they were in the same timespan last year.

Nitrogen dioxide is emitted from cars, power plants, and other industrial processes, and researchers think that it may aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma. Monks suggested that the reduced pollution may bring some near-term benefits for human respiratory health, even though it would not offset the greater loss of life from the disease.

And while it is not a greenhouse gas, it is a byproduct of the same human activities that are responsible for much of humanity’s carbon footprint. So less of this gas could also mean that greenhouse-gas emissions are down as well, according to researchers.

Chinese hacking surges as Coronavirus pandemic unfolds

Many of the world’s industries are slowing down amid the Coronavirus crisis, but some cybercriminals are not.

Many of the world’s industries are slowing down amid the Coronavirus crisis, but some cybercriminals are not, several U.S. cybersecurity firms warn. They report increased activity from hacking groups linked to China since the international outbreak of coronavirus earlier this year.

One firm, FireEye Inc., stated in a report that it has detected a surge in cyber-espionage by a suspected Chinese group dating back to early January, when the pathogen was beginning to expand beyond China’s borders. The report dubbed the group “APT41” and indicated that its hacking activity began on January 20 and targeted more than 75 of FireEye’s customers, which include manufacturers, nonprofit groups, healthcare organizations, and media companies, among others.

It added that APT41 took advantage of certain flaws in software developed by Cisco, Citrix, and others to try to hack multiple companies’ networks in the United States, Canada, Britain, Mexico, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and more than a dozen other countries.

APT41’s activity was “one of the broadest campaigns by a Chinese cyber espionage actor we have observed in recent years,” according to the report.

It’s also a departure from normal cybercrime trends, noted John Hultquist, FireEye’s head of analysis. He said that hacking activity linked to China has generally become “more focused” and that widespread attacks on many targets such as this are rare.

FirEye isn’t the only firm sounding alarms over Chinese hackers. Matt Webster, a researcher with Secureworks, Dell Technologies’ cybersecurity arm, told Reuters that his team has seen increased activity from Chinese hacking groups in the last several weeks.

More U.S. coronavirus patients are recovering

Health officials have documented 15 known cases of patients successfully recuperating from the virus in the last few weeks.

While the death toll from Coronavirus reportedly reached double digits this week, researchers are pointing with hope to another number that has outpaced it: recoveries. Health officials have documented 15 known cases of patients successfully recuperating from the virus in the last few weeks.

The cases include one patient in Wisconsin, six in California, four in Nebraska, two in Illinois, one in Arizona, and one in Washington state. By comparison, 14 U.S. patients were reported to have died from the virus.

The Wisconsin patient had to recuperate at home for several weeks, according to the patient’s doctor, Nasia Safdar. Safdar told NBC News that the majority of patients will just need some down time to get over the infection.

“For most people, this will be the course. It will be like a cold,” Safdar said.

The death toll has climbed to 3,3387worldwide, out of nearly 97,000 cases. But more than 53,638 have already recovered, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

Dr. Vincent Bonagura, an infectious-disease expert at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Norwell Health in New York, cautioned that patients with chronic health problems, such as diabetes or heart disease, are more at risk of not surviving the infection. These patients tend to “do poorly when then get pneumonia or an infection of the lung,” he said.

People who smoke or who have chronic lung conditions are also more at risk, said Terry Mason, chief operating officer at Illinois’ Cook County Department of Public Health. Mason explained that these conditions cause long-term lung damage that makes a recovery from Coronavirus more difficult.

Coronavirus cuts into Coca-Cola Production

Coca-Cola said that it is taking precautionary measures with its China-based employees to reduce the threat of infections.

The coronavirus outbreak may cause supplies of Coke to dip, Coca-Cola said in an report it released this week. The company said that virus-related disruptions to its supply lines in China threaten to cause shortages of certain key ingredients, resulting in an estimated cut of 2-3 percentage points to its case volume and a 1- or 2-cent reduction to its first-quarter earnings-per-share.

“We have initiated contingency supply plans,” the report states. It added that while these backup plans may prevent production cuts in the short term, “We may see tighter supplies of some of these ingredients in the longer term should production or export operations in China deteriorate.”

Sweeteners that are at risk of production shortages include aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, saccharin, cyclamate, and steviol glycosides. These are used in a variety of diet and non-diet Coke beverages.

Mainland China has reported 78,500 incidents of coronavirus as of Thursday, with 2,641 deaths in the Hubei province where the virus first emerged. Infections continue throughout China and worldwide, with nearly 2,800 dead across the globe so far—including 44 new deaths in China as of Friday—and fears of contracting the virus have caused widespread reductions in manufacturing and economic productivity within China, including at the facilities where Coca-Cola’s sweeteners are produced.

Coca-Cola said that it is taking precautionary measures with its China-based employees to reduce the threat of infections. The company said that it plans to distribute face masks, hand sanitizers, and health-monitoring systems throughout its Chinese factories.

The company released a statement expressing “deepest sympathies” for those who have been affected by the virus, and said that it is also “donating to organizations that are working diligently to support patients and contain the virus.”

Intermittent fasting has health benefits, but it’s not for everyone, researchers say

Either way, the alternating between eating and fasting can improve blood-sugar regulation and increase resistance to stress.

Weight loss, less stress, and lower cholesterol—a type of diet called intermittent fasting could yield all of these benefits and more, a new study concludes. But other researchers chimed in with some notes of caution: This diet is difficult and requires patience, and it may not be a good idea for people with certain health conditions.

Intermittent fasting consists of alternating between periods of eating and not eating, according to co-author Mark Mattson, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist. He said that this diet comes in two varieties: one that requires the person to consume food only within a set six- or eight-hour period of the day; and one that limits the person to eat normally five days a week and eat only one moderate-sized meal on each of the other two.

Either way, the alternating between eating and fasting can improve blood-sugar regulation and increase resistance to stress, while also lowering blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and heart rates, Matson wrote. He said that he would encourage more health professionals to tell their patients about it.

“We are at a transition point where we could soon consider adding information about intermittent fasting to medical school curricula alongside standard advice about healthy diets and exercise,” Mattson said in a release statement.

But Guy Mintz, director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at Sandra Bass Hear Hospital in New York, noted that the fasting regimen can be difficult. He did not participate in the study.

Mintz also said that patients who are diabetic, older, or not overweight should avoid intermittent fasting. The diet can cause swift fluctuations in blood sugar, which can be harmful for any of these patient groups, he said.

Russian scientists use MRI scans to predict children’s intelligence

The Russian researchers accomplished the task by building a network architecture that applies several mathematical models.

Russian scientists took fourth place in an international competition of MRI-based methods for predicting adolescent intelligence. The scientists, from Russia’s Skoltech Center for Computational and Data-Intensive Science and Engineering (CDISE), used new techniques that they said could gauge a child’s “fluid intelligence,” or brain power that the child is born with and that has little to do with acquired knowledge or skills.

Their model predicted children’s fluid intelligence level and the “target variable”—intelligence over time, which can be affected by learning and environmental nurturing—independently of age, gender, brain size, or the type of MRI scanner used, according to the researchers. They published their results in the journal Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Neurocognitive Prediction.

The competition dates back to 2013, when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a grand-scale study of adolescent brains to evaluate if and how teenagers’ hobbies and habits affect their brain development. NIH scientists also wondered if MRI scans could predict a young person’s intelligence level and compiled a massive database of brain scans of children ages 9-10.

The NIH subsequently jumpstarted the competition and made the database available to international research groups wishing to compete. To enter the competition, each group would have to build a predictive model based on brain images.

The Russian researchers accomplished the task by building a network architecture that applies several mathematical models to more accurately predict the outcomes, as well as an “ensemble method” for analyzing the MRI data.

“Our team develops deep learning methods for computer vision tasks in MRI data analysis, amongst other things,” said CDISE Ph.D. student Ekaterina Kondratyeva. “With this approach, one can classify an image as it is, without first reducing its dimension and, therefore, without losing valuable information.”

Brain scans could spot children’s mood, behavior problems early

Whitfield-Gabrieli suggested that children who exhibit the telltale biomarkers could receive early interventions.

Brain scans could help spot children who are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, or attention problems, suggests a study. In the study, which was published December 26 in JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers describe identifying using imaging devices to scan children’s brains for certain brain-tissue formations that are associated with heightened risk of emotional or attentiveness difficulties.

“We’re facing a tremendous epidemic with teen anxiety and depression, and we wanted to find an early marker that predicted the development of anxiety, depression and attentional symptoms,” said Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, the study’s lead author. She is a professor of psychology and director of the Northeastern University Biomedical Imaging Center in Boston.

The researchers examined 94 children, most of whom did not exhibit any mental health concerns, although 17 were considered to be at risk of having reading problems. During the study, they conducted MRI scans of every child and found that connections in certain areas of the brain at age 7 could help predict the onset of depression, attention problems, or similar issues within the next four years of life.

Whitfield-Gabrieli suggested that children who exhibit the telltale biomarkers could receive early interventions, such as cognitive therapy, exercise programs, or mindfulness training to help them minimize their symptoms and halt the progression of any emerging psychological disorders.

The researchers noted that while it is not feasible to try to image all children’s brains yet, it may be possible in the future with the development of more efficient, lower-cost imaging methods.

Whitfield-Gabrieli also hopes to scan infants’ brains in a later study to see if it is possible to predict mental health issues at even earlier stages in life.

Diet has fast impacts on sperm quality

Men could boost their own fertility in just one to two weeks just by cleaning up their diet.

Men can improve their sperm health in just one or two weeks if they change their diet, suggests a new study at Linköping University in Sweden. The researchers, who published their study in PLOS Biology, found that male study subjects’ sperm became healthier or less healthy within days based on the study subjects’ daily intake of key nutrients.

The study tested 15 healthy, non-smoking young men and had them all follow a specified diet, in which they received all of their food from the researchers, for two weeks. During the second week, the researchers added about 450 grams of sugar—equal to around 3.5 liters of soft drinks—to the daily food regimen.

The researchers tested the subjects’ sperm at the start of the study, after the first week, and after the second week. One-third of the test subjects exhibited low sperm motility at the beginning, but all test subjects’ motility reached normal levels by the end of the first week.

“We see that diet influences the motility of the, and we can link the changes to specific molecules in them. Our study has revealed rapid effects that are noticeable after one to two weeks,” said Anita Öst, senior lecturer in the Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine at Linköping University, and head of the study.

The researchers also found that small RNA fragments that are related to sperm motility also changed during the course of the study. They now plan to investigate to find out if these RNA fragments affect male fertility itself, and whether the RNA code could be used to develop new diagnostic methods that in vitro fertilization procedures could use to assess sperm quality.

Scientist undergoes brain operation to cure alcoholism

A disease researcher with a deadly drinking habit credits a brain operation with giving him his life back.

AA Canadian microbiologist who has struggled for years with alcoholism credits a first-of-its-kind brain operation with ending his addiction and giving him his life back. The scientist, Frank Plummer, is the first person in North America known to have received this treatment.

“I’m very excited about the results. It took away my cravings and it made me change my mood, hugely,” he said, adding that without this treatment, “I’d be dead, several months ago.”

Plummer is the former director of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory and oversaw the lab’s response to a SARS outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. He also oversaw development of a successful vaccine for Ebola.

In 2014, however, he retired due to what his spokesperson called personal reasons.” Problems with alcohol were a factor: He was drinking up to 20 ounces of whiskey every evening, and he experienced liver failure in 2012. Plummer tried counseling and rehab without success.

Plummer underwent the operation at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. A neurosurgeon drilled holes into Plummer’s skull and inserted electrodes deep into his brain. The electrodes are attached to a pacemaker-like device that stimulates a brain region, the nucleus accumbens, which is linked to dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is involved in feelings of pleasure, motivation, and addiction cravings.

Nir Lipsman, a neurosurgeon at the centre and one of the researchers behind the experimental treatment, said that the procedure aims to disrupt the neuron circuitry that drives the patient’s addiction. Once the circuitry is altered, the patient will no longer be addicted to alcohol, he said.

Lipsman explained that the procedure may be an option for patients who are severely addicted and have tried all other options without success.