Category Archives: Diseases

COVID-19 seems to affect the brain — even in mild cases

From early on in the pandemic, there’s been strong evidence of COVID-19 can take a toll on the brain and the nervous system – with symptoms like the loss of smell and taste as hallmarks of early infection. Now, a new study further demonstrated the mental toll of the virus, which was linked with significant, lasting brain abnormalities even in mild cases.

Image credit: Pixabay.

Researchers found that COVID-19 seems to reduce the brain’s gray matter, mainly in areas linked with memory processing and smell. These changes were observed in both people who required hospitalization and in those who had a less severe infections. The damage seen in the brain was beyond the structural changes that normally happen with age and could not be explained by other factors.

The study looked at changes in the brains of 785 people aged 51-81, who previously contributed brain scans to the UK Biobank, a large-scale database of brain imaging data from over 45,000 UK residents. Out of the participants, 401 had a COVID-19 infection sometime between March 2020 and April 2021 – with 4% hospitalized for infections.  

The remaining 384 participants didn’t have COVID-19 but matched the infected participants in age, sex, and COVID-19 risk factors, such as whether they had diabetes. They served as the control group as they had no record of confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Everyone in the study was subject to two brain scans to allow comparisons.

“Using the UK Biobank resource, we were in a unique position to look at changes that took place in the brain following mild—as opposed to more moderate or severe—SARS-CoV-2 infection,” Genaëlle Douaud, lead author on the study, said in a statement. “We saw a greater loss of gray matter volume in infected participants.”

COVID-19 and the brain

The team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brains. MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to generate images of tissues in the body. The MRI scans showed clear shrinkage in the brains of the people who caught the disease. Participants of the study caught COVID-19 about 4.5 months before their second scan.

The infected group had larger tissue loss in specific regions of the cerebral cortex – the outer surface of the brain. Shrinkage was most pronounced in the orbitofrontal cortex (which plays an important role in sensation) and in the parahippocampal gyrus (which is important for encoding new memories).

At the same time, those infected with COVID-19 had a larger reduction in overall brain size than the control group without the virus, the study showed. The authors also found tissue damage in areas of the brain linked with the primary olfactory cortex – a structure that gets sensory information from scent-detecting neurons in the nose.

On average, those who had the virus showed 0.2% to 2% greater tissue loss and damage over the course of about three years, compared with the control group. Estimates suggest that adults lose between 0.2% to 0.3% of gray matter in regions related to memory each year, so the extra loss would be out of the ordinary.

“It’s the only study in the world to be able to demonstrate before vs after changes in the brain associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection,” Naomi Allen, chief scientists at the Biobank, said in a statement. “Collecting a second set of scans has generated a unique resource to enable scientists to understand how the virus affects internal organs.”

The study stops short of explaining how impactful these changes are on the brain, and how long-lasting they are. However, problems associated with COVID-19 appear to be more pervasive than initially thought, and the specter of long COVID will likely continue for a long time to come.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Pandemic restrictions could be linked to 750,000 fewer dengue cases

Almost three-quarters of a million fewer cases of dengue were registered in 2020, which researchers suspect is linked to COVID-19restrictions on people’s movements and interactions, according to a new study. For the researchers, targeting places such as schools could greatly reduce dengue transmission hot spots and play a key role in stopping the spread of the disease.

Image credit: Flickr / Vaccines at Sanofi

Dengue is a big cause of acute morbidity in over 120 countries worldwide, with sustained increases year on year. Countries in Southeast Asia and the Americas regions are the worst affected, with over two million cases reported there in 2020 — but as the planet continues to heat up, more and more areas become vulnerable to dengue.

The virus isn’t transmitted human to human but by the Aedes aegypti species of mosquitoes which needs hot temperatures. Hot and humid tropical climates are ideal for transmission, and cases generally peak between June and September. Symptoms typically include a high fever, headache, vomiting, muscle and joint pains, and a characteristic skin rash. Overall, dengue infects some 400 million people a year, killing 40,000.

For dengue, the COVID-19 pandemic was a unique opportunity to better understand how different environments and human mobility contribute to transmission. That’s why an international group of researchers decided to carry out the first multi-continent study of the effects of public health and social measures on dengue incidence.

“Before this study, we didn’t know whether COVID-19 disruption could increase or decrease the global burden of dengue,” Oliver Brady, study co-author, said in a statement. “While we could assume reduction in the human movement would reduce the virus transmission, it would also disrupt the mosquito control measures already in place.”

Dengue and Covid-19

Brady and a group of researchers from Beijing Normal University and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) looked at monthly dengue cases between 2014 and 2020, using data from the World Health Organization (WHO). They covered 23 countries, 16 in Latin America and seven in Southeast Asia, as well as climate data such as temperature.

The researchers then looked at two measures of Covid-19 related disruption – public health and social measures (school and public transport closure and stay-at-home requirements) and human behavior through time spent at public and residential locations. They also incorporated the strength of the restrictions in lockdowns in different countries.

By combining this data, they showed that reduced time spent outdoors was linked with reduced dengue risk. Nine out of 11 countries in the Philippines, the Caribbean, and Central America had a full suppression of their dengue season in 2020, while other countries had a much-reduced season. Countries that set their pandemic restriction measures at the peak of the dengue season had a sharper decline of dengue cases.

The decrease in cases could also be linked to a lower rate of people seeking treatment for dengue, reduced availability of laboratory testing, and a higher potential of misdiagnosis, the researchers said. However, some countries like Sri Lanka predicted this could be a problem early in the pandemic and took measures, encouraging people to get diagnosed and seek treatment. Overall, this suggests that COVID-19 lockdowns also led to drops in dengue.

“Dengue control efforts are focused on or around the households of people who get sick. We now know that, in some countries, we should also be focusing measures on the locations they recently visited to reduce dengue transmission. For all the harm it has caused, this pandemic has given us an opportunity to inform new interventions and targeting strategies to prevent dengue,” Brady said.

In the long term, more routine measurement of the prevalence for dengue as well as a better understanding of how treatment-seeking behavior changes at different phases of dengue and COVID-19 epidemics will be important, the researchers wrote. That will require continued monitoring of the dengue trends in 2021 and beyond, including the collection of human mobility data.

The study was published in the journal The Lancet.

Exposure to air pollution could be a cause of ADHD in children

While genetics play a big role, many other factors have been speculated to cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – from eating too much sugar to watching TV. Now, researchers have found that high levels of air pollution and limited access to green areas can also increase the risk of developing the condition.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental condition in children, which sometimes continues in adulthood. It’s a complex condition, difficult to diagnose, and with no cure. If left unchecked, ADHD can impact children’s performance at school and their relationships with parents and peers . It’s more common in boys than girls and it affects 1 in 20 children.

The disorder is generally diagnosed during the first years of school but it can manifest differently from child to child. Its cause, however, has been a subject of debate among researchers. In 2018, a study identified regions of the DNA associated with ADHD, for instance. But scientists have also been studying other factors, with no clear answers on many of them so far.

It seems like a lot of things could be responsible for ADHD, and the latest to blame is air pollution. According to previous research, it may cause ADHD through induced systemic oxidative stress, with disturbs brain development, leading to cognitive deficits. Noise exposure can also increase stress, with is associated with psychological disorders such as hyperactivity. However, results from previous research have so far been inconsistent or limited.

In a new study, researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) looked at the links between environmental exposures (greenness, air pollution and noise) in early life and later ADHD incidence – using environmental exposure metrics in combination with a population-based birth cohort linked with administrative data.

“We observed that children living in greener neighborhoods with low air pollution had a substantially decreased risk of ADHD. This is an environmental inequality where, in turn, those children living in areas with higher pollution and less greenness face a disproportionally greater risk”, lead author Matilda van den Bosch said in a statement.

ADHD and air pollution

For the study, the researchers used birth data from the metropolitan area of Vancouver, Canada from 2000 to 2001 and also retrieved data on ADHD cases from hospital records. They estimated the percentage of green spaces in the participants’ neighborhoods as well as the levels of air and noise pollution, using exposure models.

The study identified a total of 1,217 ADHD cases, which represents 4.2% of the sampled population. The participants living in areas with a larger percentage of vegetation had a lower risk of ADHD. More specifically, the study showed that a 12% increase in vegetation was linked with a 10% drop in the risk of having ADHD.

The opposite associated was observed with air pollution. The participants who had higher exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) had a higher risk of ADHD. Specifically, every 2.1 microgram increase in the levels of PM2.5 meant an 11% increase in the risk of ADHD. No link was found between noise pollution, NO2, and ADHD.

“Our findings also show that the associations between PM2.5 and ADHD were attenuated by residential green space and vice versa as if the beneficial effects of vegetation and the harmful effects of PM2.5 neutralized each other,” Weiran Yuchi, a researcher at the University of British Columbia and first author of the study, said in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Environment International.

Drug-resistant pathogens now kill over one million people per year — more than malaria

Bacteria and fungi with the ability to withstand the drugs meant to kill them are now causing 1.2 million deaths every year, according to a global study. This represents a big jump from previous estimates of 700,000 deaths a year, and has prompted researchers to call for concentrated efforts that include infection prevention and vaccination to deal with antibiotic resistance. 

Image credit: DFID / Flickr.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has been described as the most alarming issue for human health, expected to cause up to 10 million deaths after 2050 – the same as the number of people that die from cancer every year in present times. It can affect people at any stage of life, also affecting the agriculture, veterinary and healthcare industries. It’s also a problem that will likely grow more and more as time passes.

The problem roughly goes like this: when a new antibiotic is introduced, it is generally very good at killing the pathogens it’s meant to kill. But in time, bacteria and fungi can grow more and more resistant to it, especially if people don’t take antibiotics properly. Evolutionary pressure pushes the pathogens to develop more and more resistance, until they can render the antibiotic useless. We’re already seeing this with some strains of gonorrhea, which are virtually untreatable, and several other types of bacteria. This means we constantly need a fresh supply of antibiotics to ensure we can defeat these bacteria and fungi, but developing new antibiotics is slow — slowly but surely, we’re losing the upper hand.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned last year that none of the 43 antibiotics in development as well as the recently approved medicines are enough to take antimicrobial resistance. Of the 43 drugs in development, 26 target dangerous superbugs, but they are derivatives of existing classes of antibiotics, the WHO warned.

“AMR is a leading cause of death around the world, with the highest burdens in low-resource settings. Understanding the burden of AMR and the leading pathogen–drug combinations contributing to it is crucial to making informed and location-specific policy decisions, particularly about infection prevention,” the researchers wrote. 

The effects of superbugs

The Global Research on Antimicrobial Resistance report, published in The Lancet, is based on modelling that incorporates a wide range of data sources – including lab results, hospital records and surveillance information from pharmaceutical companies. It’s the first comprehensive assessment of the global burden of AMR, the researchers said.

The analysis covers more than 200 countries and territories. AMR was directly responsible for 1.27 million deaths, and associated with 4.95 million deaths, in 2019 – more than malaria or HIV/Aids. Hundreds of thousands of deaths happen due to common and previously treatable infections, as bacteria that cause them is now resistant to treatment.

People of all ages are affected by AMR, the researchers said, with young children being particularly at risk. One in five deaths happened in kids under five years old. AMR’s impact was described as more severe in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, data was limited for some regions, especially for low and middle-income countries, which could alter the estimates.

Addressing the challenge of AMR will require a set of intervention strategies, the researchers said. Infection prevention and control is the most important area, including community-based programs and hospital-based infection prevention. Vaccination programs can also reduce AMR emergence, even for pathogens without vaccines. 

“Minimising the use of antibiotics when they are not necessary to improve human health—such as treating viral infections—should be prioritized,” the researchers wrote. “Maintaining investment in the development pipeline for new antibiotics—and access to second-line antibiotics in locations without widespread access—is essential.”

The study was published in The Lancet. 

Nocebo effect could cause most COVID-19 vaccine symptoms

You’ve probably heard of the placebo effect — when patients think they’re getting an actual drug but they’re just getting a sugar pill or a hollow shell — and they recover just like they had been taking the actual drug. But the placebo effect also has a negative side, called the nocebo effect, when patients exhibit negative side effects after taking treatments with no pharmacological effects. This could be the case with some COVID-19 vaccines.

Image credit: Flick / New York National Guard.

In a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled COVID-19 vaccine trials, researchers compared the rate of adverse effects reported by those who got the vaccines to the one by patients who got the placebo shot (as in, an empty shot that isn’t actually a vaccine). Overall, two-thirds of participants reported adverse effects such as headaches and fatigue — including the ones in the placebo group.

In other words, a lot of the people reporting side effects didn’t get the vaccine at all. Instead, it was the nocebo effect giving them side effects, researchers argue.

“Nonspecific symptoms like headache and fatigue are listed among the most common adverse reactions following COVID-19 vaccination in many information leaflets,” senior author Ted Kaptchuk said in a statement. “This sort of information may cause people to misattribute common daily background sensations as arising from the vaccine.”

The researchers analyzed data from 12 clinical trials of Covid-19 vaccines. Trials included adverse effect reports from over 22,000 placebo recipients and 22,000 vaccine recipients. After the first shot, over 35% of those who got the placebo had adverse effects such as headaches and 16% reported a local event, such as swelling.

In comparison, 46% of vaccine recipients had at least one adverse effect, with two-thirds reporting at least one local event. While they had the actual vaccine treatment, researchers argue that at least some of their side effects can be attributed to the nocebo effect — considering some of the same effects happened in the placebo group. 

The researchers then looked at the side effects after the second shot. The rate of headaches and systemic symptoms was twice as high in those who got the vaccine compared to the placebo group, at 61% and 32% respectively. The gap was larger for local events, reaching 73% in vaccine recipients and 12% in the placebo group.

“Collecting systematic evidence regarding these nocebo responses in vaccine trials is important for COVID-19 vaccination worldwide, especially because concern about side effects is reported to be a reason for vaccine hesitancy,” lead author Julia W. Haas, PhD, an investigator at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said in a statement.

The side effects of COVID-19

With over five million deaths worldwide because of the ongoing pandemic, vaccination programs have been very successful in reducing the number of new infections and the number of hospitalizations. However, about 20% of the population still refuse vaccination. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO described vaccination hesitancy as a global threat — and this year, we saw just how big of a threat this can be. 

Common symptoms such as headache and fatigue, which the study has associated with the nocebo effect, are listed among the most common adverse effects of COVID-19 in many information leaflets. This information can increase nocebo mechanisms and make patients falsely attribute symptoms to vaccination.

Full disclosure and education about nocebo effects could be helpful to address this, the researchers argued. Adding simple and accurate information about nocebo to the informed consent procedure can reduce medication-related adverse effects. Highlighting the possibility of not experiencing adverse effects can also be beneficial, they conclude. 

The study was published in the journal JAMA. 

New COVID variant identified in France — but experts say we shouldn’t fear it

Scientists have identified a previously unknown mutant strain in a fully vaccinated person who tested positive after returning from a short three-day trip to Cameroon.

Academics based at the IHU Mediterranee Infection in Marseille, France, discovered the new variant on December 10. So far, the variant doesn’t appear to be spreading rapidly and the World Health Organization has not yet labeled it a variant of concern. Nevertheless, researchers are still describing and keeping an eye on it.

The discovery of the B.1.640.2 mutation, dubbed IHU, was announced in the preprint server medRxiv, in a paper still awaiting peer review. Results show that IHU’s spike protein, the part of the virus responsible for invading host cells, carries the E484K mutation, which increases vaccine resistance. The genomic sequencing also revealed the N501Y mutation — first seen in the Alpha variant — that experts believe can make COVID-19 more transmissible.  

In the paper, the clinicians highlight that it’s important to keep our guard and expect more surprises from the virus: “These observations show once again the unpredictability of the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants and their introduction from abroad,” they write. For comparison Omicron (B.1.1.529) carries around 50 mutations and appears to be better at infecting people who already have a level of immunity. Thankfully, a growing body of research proves it is also less likely to trigger severe symptoms.

Like many countries in Europe, France is experiencing a surge in the number of cases due to the Omicron variant.

Experts insist that IHU, which predates Omicron but has yet to cause widespread harm, should not cause concern – predicting that it may fade into the background. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Dr. Thomas Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said the mutation had “a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialized. So it is definitely not one worth worrying about too much at the moment.”

The strain was first uploaded to a variant tracking database on November 4, more than two weeks before Omicron was sequenced. For comparison, French authorities are now reporting over 300,000 new cases a day thought to be mostly Omicron, with data suggesting that the researchers have identified only 12 cases of IHU over the same period. 

On the whole, France has good surveillance for COVID-19 variants, meaning health professionals quickly pinpoint any new mutant strains. In contrast to Britain, which only checks three in ten cases for variants. The paper’s authors state that the emergence of the new variant emphasizes the importance of regular “genomic surveillance” on a countrywide scale.

A drone carrying a defibrillator saved the life of a heart-attack patient

A man in Sweden is alive today partly thanks to an autonomous drone. The 71-year-old suffered a heart attack while shoveling snow in the city of Trollhättan and was resuscitated by a doctor after a drone flew in a defibrillator. A heart attack has to be responded to within ten minutes of the incident, and the drone only took three to arrive — raising hopes that this type of technology could become widespread.

Image credit: Everdrone.

Everdrone, a company from Sweden, has developed an Emergency Medial Aerial Delivery (EMADE) service drone in partnership with the Center for Resuscitation Science at Karolinska Institutet. It’s designed to allow emergency dispatchers to send the drone to a caller’s home and kickstart the medical process before the ambulance.

Over 275,000 people in Europe and 350,000 in the US suffer from out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) every year, Everdrone says. Up to 70% of these happen in private homes without defibrillators, and ambulance response times can something be too long. For every minute that passes, the chances of survival decrease by 7% to 10% — so time is of the essence. 

This is where the new drone enters the stage. It has the potential to significantly increase survival rates among OHCA patients, which is now merely 10%. The service now covers 200,000 people in Sweden and is planned to expand across Europe this year; the way the drone industry is evolving, we can likely expect progress to be quick. For now, one life has already been saved, which is already an important milestone.

“I can’t put into words how thankful I am to this new technology and the speedy delivery of the defibrillator. If it wasn’t for the drone I probably wouldn’t be here”, the 71-year-old patient who has made a full recovery and is now back home said in a statement. “This is a truly revolutionary technology that needs to be implemented.”

The life-saving drone

Before being operational, researchers carried out a four-month test of the EMADE program back in 2020. The service got 14 heart attack alerts that were eligible for drones, which were used in 12 of those cases. In all cases except one the drones successfully delivered the defibrillators, and in seven cases the defibrillators arrived before the ambulance.

After the defibrillator arrived through the drone, the 71-year-old man was assisted by a bystander, who luckily turned out to be a doctor — Dr. Mustafa Ali. Ali initiated the lifesaving measures before the arrival of the ambulance. After the initial treatment on-site, the Swedish resident was rushed to the hospital and has now made a full recovery. 

“I was on my way to work at the local hospital when I looked out the car window and saw a man collapsed”, Dr. Ali said in a statement.  “I immediately understood that something was wrong and rushed to help. The man had no pulse, so I started doing CPR while asking another bystander to call 112. Just minutes later, I saw something flying above my head.”

Drones are currently being used in many areas more and more every day — including scaring birds near airports to prevent accidents, delivering goods, overall scientific research and chasing down other drones due to anti-drone measures. It’s a revolution that it’s barely starting, with a lot of potential on the medical field, if used wisely. 

Protection from the AstraZeneca vaccine drops significantly three months after the second dose

If you were looking for yet another reason on why to get a COVID-19 booster, here’s one. The protection given from the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine starts declining after three months of getting the second dose, according to a new study. The researchers analyzed data from 42 million vaccinated people in Brazil and two million in Scotland, finding that a quick booster is important. 

Image credit: Flickr / Province of British Columbia.

Three months after the second AstraZeneca dose, the risk of hospitalization and death is double that of two weeks after the second dose, the researchers found. The risk increases threefold four months after the second dose and fivefold after five months. The study showed similar numbers in Brazil and Scotland. 

Both countries had a similar 12-week interval between the two doses, and both prioritized health workers and people at risk of severe disease. However, the two countries had a different dominant variant, which suggests that the decline in effectiveness was likely due to vaccine waning and not due to variations in one variant or the other. 

“By drawing on findings from data sets in two countries with differing dominant COVID-19 variants, the researchers have been able to disentangle vaccine waning from the effects of changes in variants – strengthening the evidence for the ongoing booster programme,” Andrew Morris, Director of Health Data Research UK, said in a statement. Still, the figures should be treated with caution, the researchers argued, as it’s difficult to compare unvaccinated to vaccinated people with similar characteristics, especially among older age groups with more people vaccinated.

The growing need for boosters

Professor Aziz Sheikh, Director of the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute and study lead, said that thanks to the findings, governments will now be able to design booster programs to ensure maximum protection remains. “If eligible for a booster and you have not had yet had one, I would highly recommend that you book one soon,” he added. 

The call for booster COVID-19 shots has been intensified amid the expansion of the new Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa in late November. Researchers and doctors are now trying to grasp the risk that the new variant represents, with initial data suggesting that it is spreading faster than the previous Delta variant.

In fact, Omicron seems to be displacing Delta, as it’s much more contagious. The variant is already present in 89 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with cases doubling every 1.5 to 3 days where there’s community spread.

Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna already said that two doses of their COVID-19 vaccines don’t provide enough protection against Omicron, but three doses do. So if you need another reason to get a booster as quickly as possible, there it is.

The study behind the AstraZeneca vaccine was published in The Lancet.

Moderna booster offers reliable protection against Omicron variant

Three doses of the Moderna vaccine appear to provide significant protection against the new Omicron variant, the company said based on new data that has not yet been peer-reviewed. The announcement comes similar results were reported for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine: two doses offer little protection, but the third one does the trick.

Image credit: Flickr / The Focal Project.

Preliminary data from laboratory tests found that the booster from Moderna currently being used in the US and elsewhere provides increased antibody levels that can neutralize the virus. The pharmaceutical company said it’s currently working on an Omicron-specific booster (with clinical trials starting in 2022), but some experts believe the special booster may not be necessary, as even the normal dose seems to work fine. 

While two shots of the vaccine generated low levels of neutralizing antibodies against Omicron, a 50-microgram booster increased them 37-fold, Moderna said. A 100-microgram booster led to even higher antibody levels – more than 80 times compared to pre-boost level.

US regulators have so far authorized a 50-microgram booster of Moderna and a 100-microgram version for the first two doses. Moderna said the 100-microgram booster was safe and well tolerated, but with a trend toward more frequent adverse reactions, adding that it will now be up to governments and regulators to decide on its authorization.

“The dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant is concerning to all. However, these data showing that the currently authorized Moderna COVID-19 booster can boost neutralizing antibody levels 37-fold higher than pre-boost levels are reassuring,” Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said in a statement.

Moderna’s news comes after the Pfizer/BioNTech booster was also found to provide a strong protection against the Omicron variant. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said earlier this month “the best course of action” to address a further spread of the Omicron variant was to get as many people as possible vaccinated with two doses as well as a booster. 

There are many uncertainties regarding the new variant, including its relationship with severe illness and its ability to dodge the body’s defenses. As Moderna, they are now working on a new vaccine specific for the Omicron variant, which should be ready in 2022 after approval from regulators. 

[Read: Here’s what we know about Omicron so far]

A growing spread

The new Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa in late November, though it may have emerged in another area. Since then, researchers and pharmaceutical companies have raced to better understand its properties and the risks that it represents. Preliminary data suggests Omicron spreads faster than the Delta variant and that can infect people immune to other variants.

Omicron has already been detected in 89 countries, with a “substantial growth advantage” over the Delta variant (which it seems to be displacing) the World Health Organization (WHO) said. The WHO classified Omicron as a variant of concern earlier this month, with cases currently doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in places where there is community spread, WHO said. 

Coronavirus cases are growing fast across Europe, largely driven by the Omicron variant. Many countries are imposing tighter restrictions to try to curb the virus, such as orders to work from home and limit opening hours in restaurants.. In the US cases are also rising rapidly, with Washington DC and New York reporting record daily numbers last Friday. 

UK faces new surge of COVID-19 infections due to Omicron variant

The Omicron Covid-19 variant, which appears to be more contagious than other previous strains of the virus, is expanding fast across the United Kingdom, and the government is preparing a new set of restrictions. The country has already registered the first death of a person with the variant, which is expected become dominant in London in the next few days.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Image credit: Flickr / Number 10.

As of Monday, there were 4,714 confirmed cases of Omicron in the UK, according to Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaking to Parliament, with the total daily infections with all strains estimated at 200,000. Javid said the new variant is spreading “at a phenomenal rate, doubling every two days in infections.” That’s something never seen before in the pandemic, he added.

The UK has already increased its Covid-19 alert level to four, which means a high or rising level of transmission — a level that hadn’t been seen in place since May. New guidelines were also implemented this week, asking people to work from home whenever possible and wear a mask when going to the shops and on public transportation — something that was previously not the case in Britain.

“Sadly at least one patient has now been confirmed to have died with Omicron,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters when visiting a vaccination center. “So I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus – I think that’s something we need to set on one side – and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates.”

Johnson set the target of offering every adult a third Covid-19 vaccine by the end of December, a month earlier than originally planned. The government had already reduced the period between the second and third doses from six months to three – focusing its Covid response in vaccination instead on reimposing further restrictions.

The Prime Minister also said there’s “a tidal wave of Omicron” on its way to the UK but showed confidence on the booster shot, which could bring protection levels back up. Two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine “are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need,” he added, encouraging people to get their new shot. 

The speech seemed to have had an effect, as long queues were reported outside vaccination sites in the UK and the National Health Service (NHS) website to book the booster shot even crashed on Monday. The NHS returned this week to the highest level of emergency preparedness, which means the response to Omicron will be nationally coordinated.

It won’t stop in the UK

The new variant is still being studied by researchers around the world but reportedly has more mutations than those of the Delta variant and could be more resilient against vaccination. The World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron as a variant of concern, the fifth so far to obtain that classification, as countries tighten restrictions. Although it’s still early days, this is by far the most contagious strain of the virus we’ve seen.

Maria van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical manager of the pandemic, told El Pais newspaper that the world is “facing a tsunami of infections” because of the Delta and the Omicron variants. She asked governments not to delay action, suggesting the use of masks, remote working and preparing hospitals but dismissing new quarantines. 

In an initial study, Pfizer and BioNTech, manufacturers of one of the Covid-19 vaccines currently available, found a 25-fold reduction in the neutralization ability of vaccines against the Omicron variant. Nevertheless, the two companies argued an extra boosted shot would provide the sufficient protection to fight the strain of the virus.

New vaccine could remove “zombie” cells that cause aging

Researchers in Japan have developed a new vaccine that they argue could remove senescent cells, also known as zombie cells, which are usually associated with aging and several diseases. Mice administrated with the vaccine showed decreased levels of the zombie cells, creating antibodies that attach to the cells and removing them. 

Image credit: Pixabay (Creative Commons).

Professor Toru Minamino of Juntendo University and a team of researchers identified a protein in senescent cells in humans and mice, then created a peptide vaccine that targets it. When applied, the body creates antibodies that attach themselves to the cells, which are then removed by white blood cells that adhere to these antibodies, Minamino told The Japan Times.

The researchers first administered the new vaccine to mice with arterial stiffness, reporting positive results. Plenty of accumulate zombie cells were removed and areas affected by the disease were reduced. Then they applied the vaccine in older mice, in which the progression of age proved to be slower compared to mice who hadn’t been vaccinated. 

“Senolytic vaccination also improved normal and pathological phenotypes associated with aging, and extended the male lifespan of progeroid mice,” the researchers wrote in their paper in the journal Nature Aging, reporting on the results. “Our results suggest that vaccination targeting seno-antigens could be a potential strategy for new senolytic therapies.”

Understanding zombie cells

A wide array of stress factors can harm our body cells. Ideally, these are removed through our immune system through a process called apoptosis. But as we get older the body isn’t as effective at removing dysfunctional cells. This can contribute to an already weakened immune system and less efficient biological processes, triggering disease. 

Over the years, researchers have been exploring whether better management of senescence cells can revitalize aging tissues and increase active years of life. These cells are quite unique as they eventually stop multiplying but don’t die when they should. Instead, they continue releasing chemicals that can cause inflammation – like a moldy fruit affecting the rest. 

The older we are, the more zombie cells we have in our body. And since our immune system is less efficient, these cells accumulate and affect healthy ones. This can affect our ability to cope with illness or stress, recuperate from injuries and even learn new things, like another language – as zombie cells also degrade our brain’s cognitive functions. 

Senescent cells have been linked with a set of age-related conditions, such as cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even eyesight problems. Researchers have been looking at these cells since early 1960s, with investigations currently being done on a potential connection with cytokine storm induced by Covid-19. 

Back in May, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) reported having discovered how immune cells naturally clear the body of zombie cells. Their finding, based on laboratory experiments in mice, could open the door to new approaches and strategies to treat age-related diseased with immunotherapy, they argued. 

The study behind the new vaccine was published in the journal Nature Aging. 

Pfizer boosters seem to offer Omicron protection — but two shots may not

Two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may not be enough to protect against the novel Omicron coronavirus variant, but three doses are enough to neutralize it, the pharmaceutical companies said in a statement. This offers new hope to fight the mutant variant which, although has just been discovered, has the entire world on alert.

Image credit: Flickr / The Focal Project.

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said “the best course of action” to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is to get as many people as possible vaccinated with two doses and a booster. It’s not exactly a new approach, but it could be the only way to get some protection against Omicron until (or if) new vaccines arrive. Two doses only offer a limited level of protection against the Omicron variant, with initial data suggesting protection improves with a booster shot, he added.

However, these results are only preliminary and Pfizer says they will continue gathering data and evaluating the “real-world effectiveness” of the vaccine. They are now working on a new vaccine specific for the Omicron variant, which they hope it will be ready for delivery in the next 100 days, following approval from regulatory agencies. 

Initial Omicron studies

Researchers in South Africa first identified the new Omicron variant in late November. Since then, teams have been racing to better understand its properties and the risks it poses. Preliminary data suggests that the variant is highly transmissible (spreading faster than the Delta) and that is can infect people who are immune to other COVID-19 variants. 

The new strain has been classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization, the fifth one to be given that category. Still, WHO’s Emergency Director Mike Ryan said earlier this week that there are no signs that Omicron could be better at evading vaccines than other variants, expressing confidence in the vaccines’ overall protection. 

Pfizer and BioNTech found an average 25-fold reduction in the neutralization ability of vaccines against the Omicron variant. This shows that two doses “may not be sufficient to protect against infection with the Omicron variant,” they said — although again, it’s still preliminary data.

Another study by researchers from South Africa also found that the Omicron variant partly escapes antibody neutralization given by the Pfizer vaccine. Nevertheless, the preprint study showed that previously infected and then vaccinated individuals are likely well protected. This would also be the case of those who get a booster shot. 

Health officials are urging people to get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible. In the US, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise adults who have had the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to get a booster six months after their second shot. A quarter of those who are vaccinated have received a booster in the US.

“Vaccines remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19, slow transmission, and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging. COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. Scientists are currently investigating Omicron, including how protected fully vaccinated people will be,” the CDC wrote in a statement. 

Not only is mixing COVID-19 vaccines safe — it provides better protection than a single type

A study into COVID-19 vaccines found that people have higher levels of immunity when receiving the first dose of AstraZeneca or Pfizer followed by a Moderna or Novavax shot nine weeks after, compared to two shots of the same vaccine. While this is a relatively small study, it seems to suggest that the mix-and-match approach works when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines — at least in some combinations.

Image credit: Flickr / Province of British Columbia.

Researchers at the University of Oxford tested vaccine combinations on a group of over 1,000 volunteers over 50. The Moderna and Novavax vaccines increased immunity after the AstraZeneca vaccine, compared to a second AstraZeneca shot, while only Moderna increased antibodies after Pfizer, compared to a full vaccination with Pfizer. 

Mix and match

The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused more than five million deaths to date — and with new variants constantly emerging, there’s no way out of the pandemic other than vaccination.

Over three billion people were vaccinated with at least one dose, but that figure is only 2% to 8% in low-income countries. Around the world, 24 Covid-19 vaccines have been already approved, but manufacturing and distribution remain major challenges, especially in the less-developed parts of the world. For countries like this, where availability is a problem, mixing between different vaccines could be a game-changer, the researchers suggest.

Results varied based on the particular type of vaccine mix. The researchers found levels of antibodies 17 times higher in those individuals who got the first shot of AstraZeneca followed by a shot of Moderna, and four times higher when followed by Novavax. Meanwhile, for those who got the first jab of Pfizer, antibodies were 1.3 times higher when getting a second shot of Moderna and 20% lower with Novavax. 

The team at Oxford also explored the impact of vaccine combinations against novel COVID-19 variants, specifically the Delta and the Beta ones. In both cases, they registered a reduction in the levels of antibodies and a very little drop in T-cell responses. The Omicron variant, which was just recently discovered, wasn’t included in the study. 

Of the mixed schedules studied, perhaps the most relevant to low-income countries is the AstraZeneca/Novavax, the researchers argued, as neither require ultra-low temperature storage and also given the low cost of the AstraZeneca. The WHO is expected to soon authorize the Novavax to be delivered through the Covax initiative.   

Validating a strategy

While previous studies demonstrated the short-term safety of vaccine combinations, this is the first one to publish data from randomized controlled trials examining the immunity levels and safety of using different vaccines over a longer period of time. 

“Multiple vaccines are appropriate to complete primary immunisation following priming with BNT (Pfizer) or ChAd (AstraZeneca), facilitating rapid vaccine deployment globally and supporting recognition of such schedules for vaccine certification,” the researchers, members of the Oxford Vaccine’s Group Com-Cov, wrote in The Lancet. 

Several countries had already been using vaccine combinations for a while now, especially as they were faced with low vaccine supplies and slow vaccination campaigns. This was the case of Germany, for example, which offered booster shots of Pfizer and Moderna to vulnerable individuals, regardless of their previous vaccine. But not everyone supports this strategy.

Back in July, the World Health Organization advised people against mixing and matching COVID-19 vaccines, and it remains to be seen whether this recommendation will change in light of the new information. Mixing vaccines could offer new hope to lower-income countries that have not completed their primary vaccination campaigns and could now start using different vaccine brands. 

The study was published in the journal The Lancet.

A vaccine cuts the risk of cervical cancer by 90%

A vaccine for cancer almost sounds too good to be true, but in the case of cervical cancer, it’s happening already. A new study in the UK shows that the human papillomavirus (or HPV) vaccine is already cutting cases of cervical cancer by up to 90%.

Image credits: Flickr/Ted Eytan.

Vaccinating against cancer

There are many different types of cancer, and they often manifest themselves in different ways. Increasingly, research is showing that some types of cancers are caused by viruses — and as dreadful as that sounds, it opens up an opportunity: if we can prevent the viruses from doing damage, we could also prevent those cancers from developing.

This is exactly what’s happening with HPV. HPV infections typically cause no symptoms and 90% of them resolve naturally within two years. However, in some cases, the infection can result in either warts or lesions. These lesions can increase the risk of cancer — not just in the cervix, but also in the anus, vagina, throat, penis, or tonsils.

Thankfully, there’s a vaccine for HPV. HPV vaccines are very safe and have been shown to be extremely effective against cervical cancer (as well as other types of cancer) in trials. As a result, several countries have started vaccination campaigns, especially focusing on teenage girls. In England, a vaccination program was launched 13 years ago, and now, evidence shows that cervical cancer rates in women offered the vaccine between the ages of 12 and 13 (now in their 20s) were 87% lower than in the unvaccinated population. Cases in this age group (which are relatively rare) just dropped from 50 a year to around 5 a year.

The HPV vaccine can only prevent an infection — it can’t do anything if you’re already infected with the virus. This is a key problem because the virus is so widespread that immunization campaigns have to be aimed at children before they are sexually active (as the virus is transmitted through sexual contact).

In the UK, girls are offered the vaccine between the ages of 11 and 13, and since 2019, the vaccine has also been offered to boys. Although the virus is not as harmful to boys, it can still raise the risk of some cancers, and boys can also be carriers and pass the virus on.

The power of science

The investigated vaccine (Cervarix) was administered in England from 2008 to 2012. A different one (Gardasil), which offers protection for more HPV variants, is administered now. The study, which has been published in The Lancet, found a 97% drop in pre-cancerous changes in women vaccinated between the ages of 12 and 13, 75% in women vaccinated between the ages of 14 and 16, and 39% in women vaccinated between the ages of 16 and 18.

“The HPV immunisation programme has successfully almost eliminated cervical cancer in women born since Sept 1, 1995,” the study reads.

Overall, researchers estimate that the vaccine prevented 17,200 cervical carcinomas (pre-cancers) in England. The results were even better than expected. Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell said the results are a triumph of science and an important milestone in our fight against cancer:

“Results like this show the power of science. It’s a historic moment to see the first study showing that the HPV vaccine has and will continue to protect thousands of women from developing cervical cancer.”

Almost 9 in 10 severe cases of cervical cancer occur in low and middle-income countries, where there is little access to cervical cancer screening. This is why researchers believe that a vaccination campaign in these countries would make a much bigger impact than in wealthier nations such as the UK. Supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), over 100 countries have now implemented similar campaigns, and the WHO believes that with this type of campaign, we can actually eliminate cervical cancer across the world. Although that’s still a ways away now, the fact that we can vaccinate against a type of cancer is fantastic news.

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in women in the world, killing more than 300,000 each year.

New smart bandages could change the way we treat wounds

Monitoring how a wound is healing is trickier than it seems. Doctors usually do this by removing the bandage and checking the wound’s moisture, but this is quite problematic as it also disturbs the healing process. Now, in a new study, researchers have come up with a new “smart bandage” with sensors to check the status of the wound.

Image credit: Pixabay / Creative Commons

Wound healing is a physiological process through which damaged tissues repair themselves. If disrupted, the wound enters an inflammation state that can become chronic. The healing process also depends on several factors, the most relevant being moisture level — if it’s too high or too low it can alter the recovery of the wound — and removing a bandage can do just that. But with sensors, you may not need to take off the bandage to see how your wound is doing.

Miniaturized wearable sensors and readers have been developed to monitor sweat, tears, or saliva, but they haven’t been much investigated for wounds. Most common sensors couldn’t be used on wounds due to the wide range and challenges of wounds so a new approach was long overdue.  

“We developed a range of bandages with various layers and different absorption properties and characteristics,” Luca Possanzini, co-author from the University of Bologna, said. “The idea is that each type of wound could have its own appropriate dressing, from slowly exuding wounds to highly exuding wounds, such as blisters.”

Taking care of wounds

The new bandage, developed by Possanzini and researchers at the University of Bologna, comes with a set of sensors that read moisture levels and then transmits the data to an app on a smartphone. The information is then used by doctors to know whether the wound has properly healed without having to take the bandage off. 

The technology could be a game-changer in the way doctors monitor wounds — although it’s just a prototype for now. The researchers haven’t said when it would be commercially available or how much it would cost. But they explained it would be low-cost and disposable, as they have chosen inexpensive materials for designing it. 

The bandage comes with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip, which is the same size as a grain of rice and is already used on contactless cards. The researchers applied a conductive polymer called PEDOT: PSS onto two different types of gauzes, gauze rayon, and gauze PET. Gauze is a thin transparent fabric that is wrapped around a wound. 

“PEDOT:PSS is an organic semiconducting polymer that can be easily deposited on several substrates as a standard ink,” Marta Tessarolo, co-author of the study, said. “We also incorporated a cheap, disposable and bandage-compatible RFID tag, similar to those used for clothing security tags, into the textile patch. The tan can wirelessly communicate moisture levels.”

The researchers tested the bandage by exposing it to an artificial version of exudate, the liquid that oozes from wounds, and also tested different materials and shapes. The bandage was in fact very sensitive and provided different readings between moist, dry, and saturated conditions. This suggests it would be a good ally for doctors in the near future.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers. 

Just like hurricanes: city of Seville to start naming and ranking heatwaves

Heatwaves are much more than just an annoyance. They can be very dangerous, leading to illness and death — and because of climate change they are happening more frequently and are becoming more intense. That’s why raising awareness is very important. Now, the city of Seville in Spain wants to do what using an innovative approach: naming heatwaves. 

Image credit: Flickr / Neil.

Starting in 2022, the local government wants to start naming and categorizing heat waves, just like other countries and cities already do with tropical storms and hurricanes. This would be a world first, with Seville’s mayor Juan Espadas claiming this would help to make heatwaves more concrete and easier to identify by citizens, drawing much-needed awareness to the problem. 

“Extreme heat waves are becoming more frequent and devastating as a direct effect from climate change. Local governments should address the threat heat poses to our populations, particularly the most vulnerable, by raising awareness of heat-health related hazards through evidence-based data and science,” Espadas said in a statement.

A really hot place

Over 700,000 people currently live in Seville, located in the south of Spain in the Andalusia region. It’s a popular tourist destination and also one of the country’s hottest areas. It’s also one of the hottest regions in Europe.

Back on August 14th, the city of Montoro, 100 miles northeast from Seville, registered a 47.3ºC (117.3 Fahrenheit) temperature, which was the highest for Spain on record. Seville itself has had its fair share of heatwaves and extreme heat.

Seville partnered up with the Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation that focuses on reaching “one billion people with resilience solutions to climate change, migration, and security challenges” by 2030. The foundation formed in 2020 the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a coalition of organizations working on the effect of urban heat on vulnerable groups. 

“Heat waves, have been dubbed ‘the silent killer’ for a reason: They wreak unseen havoc on our economies, prey on the most vulnerable members of society, and kill more people than any other climate-driven hazard, yet the dangers they pose are grossly underestimated and gravely misunderstood,” Baughman McLeo, director of the Arsht-Rockefeller foundation, said.

The likelihood of heatwaves at different levels of global warming: 1.5 degrees Celsius (top), 2 degrees (middle), or 4 degrees (bottom).

The first steps will now be creating a focus group to come up with the heatwave names and also develop a categorization system. For this, Seville and the Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation will partner up with a team of meteorological, health and social marketing experts – including AEMET, Spain’s meteorological agency, and two local universities.

Naming and categorizing the heatwaves will allow local officials to implement specific policies, such as adding extra staff to emergency rooms and opening air-conditioned shelters. In parallel, Seville plans to carry out a public awareness campaign to better communicate the risks of extreme heat, giving citizens information on what they should and shouldn’t be doing. 

Heatwaves are among the most dangerous of natural hazards but don’t get adequate attention because their death tools and destruction aren’t always immediately obvious. According to the World Health Organization, more than 166,000 people died because of heatwaves between 1998 and 2017, including more than 70,000 who died in 2003 during a heatwave in Europe.

The more the planet heats up, the likelier heatwaves become — and the more people will have to suffer from them. Unfortunately, the decisive action required to truly curb climate change is still lacking. Perhaps initiatives such as Seville’s can help more people be aware of the major risks posed by climate change.

Covid-19 reinfection is remains likely in unvaccinated people

Among the many unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic are the duration of immunity and the odds of reinfection. There’s still very limited information on the virus’ long-term immune responses and reinfection but now, a new study, suggests that people who have been infected with the virus can expect to catch it again in one or two years. 

Image credit: Flickr / Ricardo Huñis.

Collecting data to establish the rate of reinfection of an infectious disease normally takes several years — and we haven’t really had the time with Covid-19, which has been circulating actively for just a year and a half. With this in mind, researchers at Yale University decided to look at immunological data from other coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV-1. 

By understanding how other coronaviruses evolve and how they are connected to each other, the team could model the likelihood of reinfection for SARS-CoV-2. They identified traits across the other viruses and with this estimated the decline in antibody levels after infection, as well other factors needed to understand reinfection.

“The overall goal of the study was to provide an answer to a question that at this point in the pandemic would be impossible to answer empirically, which is how long after you’ve been infected by SARS-CoV-2 can you expect to possess immunity against the virus before you become vulnerable to reinfection?” Hayley Hassler, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement.

A very likely reinfection

The model projected the risk of reinfection only under endemic conditions, in which everybody has been infected or vaccinated. Overall, the study suggests that immunity from SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t really last a long time. The risk of reinfection is about 5% at four months after the initial infection (if exposed to the disease). After 17 months, the number goes up to 50%.

Natural immunity against coronaviruses in humans is usually short-lived. Even so, this is a much shorter immune period (about two times shorter) than other human coronaviruses. The fact that Covid-19 has more dangerous outcomes during and after infection is another reason for concern.

Some news coverage has compared SARS-CoV-2 to the flu and measles, suggesting that these viruses could provide similar types of immunity, but this is misleading, according to the researchers. The viruses aren’t that much related to each other and can’t be expected to have similar properties. A life-long immunity of Covid-19 should be ruled out, they added. We may be stuck with yearly vaccines for COVID-19, much like we have for the flu.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, reinfection is likely to become increasingly common. Maintaining public health measures that curb transmission—including among individuals who were previously infected with SARS-CoV-2—coupled with persistent efforts to accelerate vaccination worldwide is critical to the prevention of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality,” the researchers wrote.

The study was published in the journal The Lancet Microbe. 

We may be inching closer to a vaccine against all coronaviruses

For years, researchers have dreamt of having one vaccine that could defend against all variants of coronaviruses. Now, according to a new study, we are one step closer to it. 

Image credit: Flickr / Duncan C.

Researchers from Northwestern Medicine discovered that people with immunity to one type of coronavirus, either because of vaccination or because of natural infection, tend to have immunity against other similar coronaviruses. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. The new findings, the researchers argue, “provide a rationale for universal coronavirus vaccines.”  

Coronaviruses have recently garnered attention due to their potential to cause pandemics — see current events. However, coronaviruses aren’t new — they’re a large family of viruses that cause upper-respiratory tract illnesses. Seven of them have been identified in humans so far, four of them being less problematic, while the other three are known to cause more severe illness, even death. These are the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome 1 Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1), Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS), and now, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome 2 Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). 

Most coronaviruses circulate among animals but sometimes, they can jump to humans, which is when they tend to become very dangerous. In less than 20 years, there have been outbreaks from the three above-mentioned viruses.

Various vaccines have shown efficacy at preventing Covid-19, helping to drive down the number of infections and deaths very significantly — this is what’s gonna help us get through this pandemic. But whether these also protect against other coronaviruses has so far remained unknown. Now, with the new study, we could be a step closer to having one vaccine for every coronavirus family and preventing future pandemics. 

Understanding coronaviruses

In their study, the researchers found that plasma from patients vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 produced antibodies that were cross-reactive, meaning potentially providing protection, against other coronaviruses – including SARS-CoV-1 and the common cold coronavirus (HCoV-OC43). This correspondence also appeared in other animals in the study.

Mice vaccinated with a SARS-CoV-1 vaccine generated immune responses that protected them against SARS-CoV-2. At the same time, mice immunized with Covid-19 vaccines and then exposed to HCoV-OC43 were also partially protected against it. This was because SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 are genetically similar, while the common cold coronavirus is more divergent. 

There are three main species of coronaviruses that cause diseases in people: sarbecorivurses, including SARS-CoV2, merbecoviruses, responsible for MERS, and sarbecoviruses, including SARS-CoV-1. Each is so unique that it’s unlikely a single vaccine would fight the three groups. But what we could have is one vaccine effective for every species within each family. 

“Until our study, what hasn’t been clear is if you get exposed to one coronavirus, could you have cross-protection across other coronaviruses? And we showed that is the case,” lead author Pabo Penaloza-MacMaster from Northwestern Medicine said in a statement. “Our study helps us re-evaluate the concept of a universal coronavirus vaccine.”

Of course, whether or not the same mice responses carry out in humans remains to be seen. Oftentimes, what works in mice doesn’t work in humans. Nevertheless, this is encouraging news, and having access to a universal coronavirus vaccine could be a fantastic tool to protect us from this group of viruses.

The study was published in the journal of Clinical Investigation.

Blood-mimicking eco-insecticide baits and kills malaria-carrying mosquitoes

Blood-thirsty mosquitoes can be directed to feed on a toxic plant-based solution that mimics blood and kills them, according to a new study. The researchers believe this could be a solution to diseases so far hard to tackle such as malaria and dengue fever, specifically targeting the infected mosquitoes without affecting any other species. 

Image credit: Flickr / Tom

There are several approaches currently being used to tackle mosquitoes carrying diseases, such as genetic manipulations of the insects, larvicides, and the use of insecticides that act once ingested or touched. The most commonly used method is the attractive toxic sugar bait (ATSB), a sugar infused with a toxin such as boric acid. But it has its drawbacks. 

The sugar baits attract mosquitoes but also other insect species, including economically important ones, such as bees, which is especially concerning amid an overall biodiversity decline around the world. Thus, researchers agree there’s a need to develop new techniques that can be used extensively in mosquitoes without affecting biodiversity.  

A new cocktail 

A group of researchers at Stockholm University have developed a solution that mimics blood so well that insects end up choosing it. Called “pink juice” by the researchers, the solution is harmless and inert to humans but toxic for mosquitoes when they eat it, according to Noushin Emami, a researcher at Stockholm University and study author, said in a statement. 

The key ingredients are HMBPP, a molecule produced by the malaria parasite, and a toxin called fipronil sulfone. The researchers experimented with other toxins such as savory oil and boric acid but the mosquitoes were repelled by them. Adding the HMBPP molecule was crucial to attract the insects, as only the toxin wouldn’t do the trick. 

The solution proved very effective, killing mosquitoes that fed on it in just one to six hours, according to the study. It was so attractive to the insects that they fed on it even when mixed with coffee. It can be distributed with different techniques, from feeder stations to spraying it on foliage so mosquitoes drink it from droplets. 

“There are a number of new, exciting, high tech approaches targeting mosquitoes which are entering a large-scale testing but I believe that there is a lot of potential in developing very simple, but highly effective solutions based on simple molecules and using materials which are not only affordable but also accessible to almost anyone,” Emami said.

Half of the world’s population is currently at risk from mosquito-borne diseases, such as Zika virus, West Nile virus, Chikungunya virus, dengue, and malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 700,000 people die from them every year. Tropical and subtropical areas are most affected, especially the poorest populations. 

The WHO argues quality-assured vector control as one of the main strategies to control malaria and other diseases. At the moment, our best defense is pesticides, nets, or repellents, but these measures are only partially effective. Last week, the WHO approved the first vaccine against malaria, which will be given to African children after a large-scale pilot program. 

The study was published in the journal Communications Biology

In historic first, WHO greenlights world’s first malaria vaccine

The world just got a new tool against a very deadly disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) said that the only approved vaccine against malaria should be given to African children following a large-scale pilot program. The vaccine (called RTS,S, or Mosquirix), with a 30% to 40% efficacy, is developed by GlaxoSmithKline and will soon be distributed in key areas. 

Image credit: Flickr /USAID.

Over two million doses of Mosquirix have been administrated to children in Ghana, Malawi and Kenya since 2019 as part of a program coordinated by the WHO. The results from the pilot were largely optimistic. The vaccine was found to be cost-effective, safe, and with have negative impact on other vaccines or other measures to prevent malaria.

“This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement. “Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”

Mosquirix had already been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in 2015, arguing the benefits outweighed the risks. But the WHO wanted to wait for the results of the pilot program before recommending it for its use. The expectation is that it will be mainly used in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease is a top killer of children. 

Still, this doesn’t mean the vaccine will be rolled out immediately in Africa. It’s hard to tell at the moment who will offer the money to purchase the necessary doses. Also, it’s a tricky vaccine to administer as it needs four doses in order to be effective – the first three at five, six, and seven months old and then a final booster at around 18 months. Nevertheless, the fact that such a vaccine — imperfect as it may be — exists, was hailed as a game changer. 

“We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said in a statement. “Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease.”

A very serious disease

Malaria is caused by a parasite, Plasmodium, that spreads to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes. There are five species that can cause malaria in humans, and two represent the largest threat. Symptoms usually appear 15 days after the mosquito bite and if not treated quickly it can progress to severe illness and even to death. 

In 2019, almost half of the world’s population was at risk of malaria, according to the WHO. Most cases and death happen in sub-Saharan Africa, but South-East Asia, the Americas, and Western Pacific are also at risk. Some groups are at higher risk than others, including infants, children under 5 years of age, pregnant women, and migrants.

There were 229 million cases of malaria in 2019, compared to 228 million in 2018, according to the latest World Malaria report. The African region carried the highest share of the burden, home to 94% of all malaria cases and deaths. Nigeria, Congo, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, and Niger were the countries with the highest number of cases.

Using an insecticide-treated net has proven to be effective to reduce contact between mosquitoes and humans thanks to the physical barrier and the insecticidal effect. At the same time, indoor residual spraying with insecticides can also reduce malaria transmission, spraying the inside of housing structures with an insecticide once a year.

There are also antimalarial medicines that can be used to prevent the disease. For travelers, the use of chemorophylaxis is advised as it suppressed the blood stage of malaria infections. For pregnant women, WHO recommends preventive treatment with sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine at scheduled antenatal visits after the first trimester.