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Dr. Francis Collins

Celebrating the Gift of COVID-19 Vaccines

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COVID-19 - Gift of the Vaccines
Credit: NIH

The winter holidays are traditionally a time of gift-giving. As fatiguing as 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have been, science has stepped up this year to provide humankind with a pair of truly hopeful gifts: the first two COVID-19 vaccines.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech, enabling distribution to begin to certain high-risk groups just three days later. More recently, the FDA granted an EUA to a COVID-19 vaccine from the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA. This messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, which is part of a new approach to vaccination, was co-developed by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The EUA is based on data showing the vaccine is safe and 94.5 percent effective at protecting people from infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Those data on the Moderna vaccine come from a clinical trial of 30,000 individuals, who generously participated to help others. We can’t thank those trial participants enough for this gift. The distribution of millions of Moderna vaccine doses is expected to begin this week.

It’s hard to put into words just how remarkable these accomplishments are in the history of science. A vaccine development process that used to take many years, often decades, has been condensed to about 11 months. Just last January, researchers started out with a previously unknown virus and we now have not just one, but two, vaccines that will be administered to millions of Americans before year’s end. And the accomplishments don’t end there—several other types of COVID-19 vaccines are also on the way.

It’s important to recognize that this couldn’t have happened without the efforts of many scientists working tirelessly behind the scenes for many years prior to the pandemic. Among those who deserve tremendous credit are Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, John Mascola, and other members of the amazing team at the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

When word of SARS-CoV-2 emerged, Corbett, Graham, and other NIAID researchers had already been studying other coronaviruses for years, including those responsible for earlier outbreaks of respiratory disease. So, when word came that this was a new coronavirus outbreak, they were ready to take action. It helped that they had paid special attention to the spike proteins on the surface of coronaviruses, which have turned out to be the main focus the COVID-19 vaccines now under development.

The two vaccines currently authorized for administration in the United States work in a unique way. Their centerpiece is a small, non-infectious snippet of mRNA. Our cells constantly produce thousands of mRNAs, which provide the instructions needed to make proteins. When someone receives an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, it tells the person’s own cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The person’s immune system then recognizes the viral spike protein as foreign and produces antibodies to eliminate it.

This vaccine-spurred encounter trains the human immune system to remember the spike protein. So, if an actual SARS-CoV-2 virus tries to infect a vaccinated person weeks or months later, his or her immune system will be ready to fend it off. To produce the most vigorous and durable immunity against the virus, people will need to get two shots of mRNA vaccine, which are spaced several weeks to a month apart, depending on the vaccine.

Some have raised concerns on social media that mRNA vaccines might alter the DNA genome of someone being vaccinated. But that’s not possible, since this mRNA doesn’t enter the nucleus of the cell where DNA is located. Instead, the vaccine mRNAs stay in the outer part of the cell (the cytoplasm). What’s more, after being transcribed into protein just one time, the mRNA quickly degrades. Others have expressed concerns about whether the vaccine could cause COVID-19. That is not a risk because there’s no whole virus involved, just the coding instructions for the non-infectious spike protein.

An important advantage of mRNA is that it’s easy for researchers to synthesize once they know the nucleic acid sequence of a target viral protein. So, the gift of mRNA vaccines is one that will surely keep on giving. This new technology can now be used to speed the development of future vaccines. After the emergence of the disease-causing SARS, MERS, and now SARS-CoV-2 viruses, it would not be surprising if there are other coronavirus health threats in our future. Corbett and her colleagues are hoping to design a universal vaccine that can battle all of them. In addition, mRNA vaccines may prove effective for fighting future pandemics caused by other infectious agents and for preventing many other conditions, such as cancer and HIV.

Though vaccines are unquestionably our best hope for getting past the COVID-19 pandemic, public surveys indicate that some people are uneasy about accepting this disease-preventing gift. Some have even indicated they will refuse to take the vaccine. Healthy skepticism is a good thing, but decisions like this ought to be based on weighing the evidence of benefit versus risk. The results of the Pfizer and Moderna trials, all released for complete public scrutiny, indicate the potential benefits are high and the risks, low. Despite the impressive speed at which the new COVID-19 vaccines were developed, they have undergone and continue to undergo a rigorous process to generate all the data needed by the FDA to determine their long-term safety and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the gift of COVID-19 vaccines comes too late for the more than 313,000 Americans who have died from complications of COVID-19, and many others who’ve had their lives disrupted and may have to contend with long-term health consequences related to COVID-19. The vaccines did arrive in record time, but all of us wish they could somehow have arrived even sooner to avert such widespread suffering and heartbreak.

It will be many months before all Americans who are willing to get a vaccine can be immunized. We need 75-80 percent of Americans to receive vaccines in order to attain the so-called “herd immunity” needed to drive SARS-CoV-2 away and allow us all to get back to a semblance of normal life.

Meanwhile, we all have a responsibility to do everything possible to block the ongoing transmission of this dangerous virus. Each of us needs to follow the three W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands often.

When your chance for immunization comes, please roll up your sleeve and accept the potentially life-saving gift of a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, I just got my first shot of the Moderna vaccine today along with NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and some front-line healthcare workers at the NIH Clinical Center. Accepting this gift is our best chance to put this pandemic behind us, as we look forward to a better new year.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Moderna (Cambridge, MA)

Pfizer (New York, NY)

BioNTech (Mainz, Germany)


A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells

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SARS-CoV-2 infected lung cells
Credit: Ehre Lab, UNC School of Medicine

If you or a loved one have come down with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, you know it often takes hold in the respiratory system. This image offers a striking example of exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when this coronavirus infects them.

This colorized scanning electron microscope (SEM) image shows SARS-CoV-2-infected human lung cells (purple) covered in hair-like cilia (blue). Those cilia line the inner surface of the airways and help to clear mucus (yellow-green) containing dust and other debris from the lungs. Emerging from the surface of those infected airway cells are many thousands of coronavirus particles (red).

This dramatic image, published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehre and team study mucus and how its properties change in cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and various other conditions that affect the lungs. These days, they’re also focusing their attention on SARS-CoV-2 and potentially new ways to block viral entry into cells of the human airway.

As part of that effort, she and her colleagues captured this snapshot of SARS-CoV-2 viruses exiting from lung cells in a lab dish. They first cultured cells from the lining of a human airway, then inoculated them with the virus. Ninety-six hours later, this is what they saw in greyscale. The vivid colors were added later by UNC medical student Cameron Morrison.

The image illustrates the astoundingly large number of viral particles that can be produced and released from infected human cells. Ehre notes that in a lab dish containing about a million human cells, they’ve witnessed the virus explode from about 1,000 particles to about 10 million in just a couple of days.

The dramatic increase in viral particles helps to explain how COVID-19 spreads so easily from the lungs to other parts of the body and—all too often—on to other individuals, especially in crowded, indoor places where people aren’t able to keep their distance. Hopefully, images like this one will help to inspire more of us this winter to avoid the crowds (especially indoors), wear masks, and wash our hands frequently.

Reference:

[1] SARS-CoV-2 infection of airway cells. Ehre C. NEJM. 2020 Sep 3;383(10):969.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Camille Ehre (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)


New Online Resource Shows How You Can Help to Fight COVID-19

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Combat COVID

There are lots of useful online resources to learn about COVID-19 and some of the clinical studies taking place across the country. What’s been missing is a one-stop online information portal that pulls together the most current information for people of all groups, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds who want to get involved in fighting the pandemic. So, I’m happy to share that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in coordination with NIH and Operation Warp Speed, has just launched a website called Combat COVID.

This easy-to-navigate portal makes it even easier for you and your loved ones to reach informed decisions about your health and to find out how to help in the fight against COVID-19. Indeed, it shows that no matter your current experience with COVID-19, there are opportunities to get involved to develop vaccines and medicines that will help everyone. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers have already taken this step—but we still need more, so we are seeking your help.

The Combat COVID website, which can also be viewed in Spanish, is organized to guide you to the most relevant information based on your own COVID-19 status:

• If you’ve never had COVID-19, you’ll be directed to information about joining the COVID-19 Prevention Network’s Volunteer Screening Registry. This registry is creating a list of potential volunteers willing to take part in ongoing or future NIH clinical trials focused on preventing COVID-19—like vaccines. Why get involved in a clinical trial now if vaccines will be widely distributed in the future? Well, there’s still a long way to go to get the pandemic under control, and several promising vaccines are still undergoing definitive testing. Your best route to getting access to a vaccine right now might be a clinical trial. And the more vaccines that are found to be safe and effective, the sooner we will be able to immunize all Americans and many others around the world.

• If you have an active COVID-19 infection, you’ll be directed to information about ongoing clinical trials that are studying better ways to treat the infection with promising drugs and other treatments. There are currently at least nine ongoing clinical trials for adults at every stage of COVID-19 illness. That includes five NIH Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) public-private partnership trials. All of these are promising treatments, but need to be rigorously tested to be sure they are safe and effective.

• If you’ve recovered from a confirmed case of COVID-19, you may be able to give the gift of life to someone else. Check out Combat COVID, where you’ll be directed to information about how to donate blood plasma. Once donated, this plasma may be infused into another person to help treat COVID-19 or it may be used to make a potential medicine.

• For doctors treating people with COVID-19, the website also provides a collection of useful information, including details on how to connect patients to ongoing clinical trials and other opportunities to combat COVID-19.

While I’m discussing online resources, NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) also recently launched an interesting website for a critical initiative called the Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19 (SeroNet). A collaboration between several NIH components and 25 of the nation’s top biomedical research institutions, SeroNet will increase the national capacity for antibody testing, while also investigating all aspects of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That includes studying variations in the severity of COVID-19 symptoms, the influence of pre-existing conditions for developing severe disease, and the chances of reinfection.

In our efforts to combat COVID-19, we’ve come a long way in a short period of time. But there is still plenty of work to do to get the pandemic under control to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. Be a hero. Follow the three W’s: Wear a mask. Watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart). Wash your hands often. And, if you’d like to find what else you can do to help, follow your way to Combat COVID.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Explaining Operation Warp Speed (HHS)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) (NIH)

Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19 (SeroNet) (National Cancer Institute/NIH)


A Song for the Holidays

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Here’s a song that I dedicated to NIH staff for the Thanksgiving holiday, adding a new verse about the COVID-19 pandemic. But the song’s message is appropriate any time of the year. So, I’m sharing it here on my blog to wish everyone a joyous holiday season.


Ceremonial Nobel Presentation

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Ceremonial Nobel Presentation for Harvey Alter
It’s been such a strange year this 2020. For the first time since World War II, the 2020 Nobel Laureates didn’t receive their Nobel prizes at special presentations in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the December 10 award presentations were held ceremonially at a number of small virtual gatherings around the world. At NIH, we streamed a ceremonial presentation in the Natcher Building for our own Harvey Alter, a senior scholar in the NIH Clinical Center’s Transfusion Medicine Department. Dr. Alter is a co-recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contributions in discovering the hepatitis C virus. He shares the prize with Michael Houghton, University of Alberta, Calgary; and Charles Rice, Rockefeller University, New York. Presenting the Nobel Prize medal to Dr. Alter on behalf of the King of Sweden was Swedish Ambassador to the United States, Karin Olofsdotter. In this photo, Dr. Alter (center) displays his Nobel medal, flanked by Ambassador Olafsdotter (left) and me (right). Credit: NIH

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