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Lessons Learned About Substance Use Disorders During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Nora Volkow and Francis Collins in a teleconference from their recent conversation

Every spring, I and my colleague Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), join with leaders across the country in the Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. Our role is to discuss NIH’s continued progress in tackling our nation’s opioid crisis. Because of the continued threat of COVID-19 pandemic, we joined in virtually for the second year in a row.

While the demands of the pandemic have been challenging for everyone, biomedical researchers have remained hard at work to address the opioid crisis. Among the many ways that NIH is supporting these efforts is through its Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, which is directing more than $1.5 billion to researchers and communities across the country.

Here’s a condensed transcript of our April 6th video dialogue, which focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people struggling with substance use disorders and those who are trying to help them.

HEAL NIH Helping to End Addition Long-term

Collins: What have we learned so far through HEAL? Well, one thing HEAL is doing is tackling the need for pain treatments that help people avoid the risks of opioids. This research has uncovered new targets and therapeutics for different types of pain, including neuropathic, post-surgical, osteoarthritic, and chemotherapy induced. We’re testing implanted devices, such as electrodes and non-invasive nerve stimulation; and looking at complementary and integrative approaches, such as phone-based physical therapy for low back pain.

Through HEAL, we’ve launched a first-in-human test of a vaccine to protect against the harmful effects of opioids, including relapse and overdose. We’re also testing a tool that provides pharmacists with a validated opioid use disorder risk measure. The goal is to identify better who’s at high risk for opioid addiction and to determine what kind of early intervention could be put in place.

Despite COVID, many clinical studies are now recruiting participants. This includes family-based prevention programs, culturally tailored interventions for hard-hit American Indian populations, and interventions that address social inequities, such as lack of housing.

We are also making progress on the truly heart-breaking problem of babies born dependent on opioids. HEAL has launched a study to test the effectiveness of a new approach to care that measures the severity of a baby’s withdrawal, based on their ability to eat, sleep, and be consoled. This approach helps provide appropriate treatment for these infants, without the use of medication when possible. We’re also developing novel technologies to help treat neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, including a gently vibrating hospital bassinet pad that’s received breakthrough device designation from the FDA.

2020 was an extraordinary year that was tragic in so many ways, including lives lost and economic disasters that have fallen upon families. The resilience and ingenuity of the scientific community has been impressive. Quick pivoting has resulted in some gains through research, maybe you could even call them silver linings in the midst of this terrible storm.

Nora, what’s been at the forefront of your mind as we’ve watched things unfold?

Volkow: When we did this one year ago, we didn’t know what to expect. Obviously, we were concerned that the stressors associated with a pandemic, with unknowns, are factors that have been recognized for many years to increase drug use. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is an increase in drug use of all types across the country.

We have seen an exacerbation of the opioid epidemic, as evidenced by the number of people who have died. Already, in the 12 months ending in July 2020, there was a 24 percent increase in mortality from overdoses. Within those numbers, there was close to a 50 percent increase in mortality associated with fentanyl. We’re also seeing an increase, not just in deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, but in deaths from stimulant drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine. And the largest increases have been very much driven by drug combinations.

So, we have the perfect storm. We have people stressed to their limits by decreases in the economy, the loss of jobs, the death of loved ones. On the other hand, we see dealers taking the opportunity to bring in drugs such as synthetic opioids and synthetic stimulants and distribute them to a much wider extent than previously seen.

Collins: On top of that, people are at risk of getting sick from COVID-19. What have we learned about the risks of coronavirus illness for people who use drugs?

Volkow: It is a double whammy. When you look at the electronic health records about the outcomes of people diagnosed with substance use disorders, you consistently see an increased risk for getting infected with COVID-19. And if you look at those who get infected, you observe a significantly increased risk of dying from COVID.

What’s driving this vulnerability? One factor is the pharmacological effects of these drugs. Basically, all of the drugs of abuse that result in addiction, notably opioids, damage the cardiopulmonary system. Some also damage the immune system. And we know that individuals who have any disruption of cardiovascular health, pulmonary health, immune function, or metabolism are at higher risk of getting infected with COVID-19 and having adverse outcomes.

But there’s another factor that’s as important—one that’s very tractable. It is the way in which our society has dealt with substance use disorders: not actually treating them as a disease that requires intervention and support for recovery. The stigmatization of individuals with addiction, the lack of access to treatment, the social isolation, have all created havoc by making these individuals so much more vulnerable to get infected with COVID-19.

They will not go to a doctor. They don’t want to be stigmatized. They need to go out into the streets to get access to the drugs. Many times, they don’t have a choice of what drugs to take because they cannot afford anything except what’s offered to them. So, many, especially those who are minorities, end up homeless or in jails or prison. Even before COVID, we knew that prisons and jails are places where infections can transmit extraordinary rapidly. You could see this was going to result in very negative outcomes for this group of individuals.

Collins: Nora, tell us more about the trends contributing to the current crisis. Maybe three or four years ago, what was going straight up was opioid use, especially heroin. Then, fentanyl started coming up very fast and that has continued. Now, we are seeing more stimulants and mixing of different types of drugs. What is the basis for this?

Volkow: At the beginning of the opiate pandemic, mortality was mainly associated with white Americans, many in rural or semi-suburban areas of the Appalachian states and in New Mexico and Arizona. That has shifted. The highest increase in mortality from opioids, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans. They’ve had very, very high rates of mortality during the COVID pandemic. And when you look at mortality from methamphetamine, it’s chilling to realize that the risk of dying from methamphetamine overdose is 12-fold higher among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than other groups. This should make us pause to think about what’s driving these terrible racial disparities.

As for drug combinations, many deaths from methamphetamine or cocaine—an estimated 50 percent—are linked to these stimulant drugs being combined with fentanyl or heroin. Dealers are lacing these non-opioid drugs with cheaper, yet potent, opioids to make a larger profit. Someone who’s addicted to a stimulant drug like cocaine or methamphetamine is not tolerant to opioids, which means they are going to be at high risk of overdose if they get a stimulant drug that’s laced with an opioid like fentanyl. That’s been contributing to the sharp rise in mortality from non-opioid drugs.

Collins: I’m glad you raised the issue of health disparities. 2020 will go down as a year in which our nation had to focus on three public health crises at once. The first is the crisis of opioid use disorder and rising mortality from use of other drugs. The second is COVID-19. And the third is the realization, although the problem has been there all along, that health disparities continue to shorten the lives of far too many people.

The latter crisis has little to do with biology, but everything to do with the way in which our society still is afflicted by structural racism. We at NIH are looking at this circumstance, realizing that our own health disparities research agenda needs to be rethought. We have not fully incorporated all the factors that play out in health inequities and racial inequities in our country.

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You were also talking about how stimulants have become more widespread. What about treatments for people with stimulant use disorders?

Volkow: For opioid addiction, we’re lucky because we have very effective medications: methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone. On top of that, we have naloxone, Narcan, that if administered on time, can save the life of a person who has overdosed.

We don’t have any FDA-approved medication for methamphetamine addiction, and we don’t have any overdose reversal for methamphetamine. At the beginning of this year, we funded a large clinical trial aimed at investigating the benefits of the combination of two medications that were already approved as anti-depressants and for the treatment of smoking cessation and alcoholism. It found this combination significantly inhibits the urge to take drugs and therefore helps people stay away from use of methamphetamine. Now, we want to replicate these findings, and to tie that replication study in with guidelines from the FDA on what is needed to approve our new indication for these medications. Why? Because then insurance can cover it, and that will increase the likelihood that people will get treated.

Another exciting possibility is a monoclonal antibody against methamphetamine that’s in Phase 2 clinical trials. If someone comes into the emergency room with an overdose of a combination of opioid and methamphetamine, naloxone often will not work. But this monoclonal antibody with naloxone may offer a greater likelihood of success.
Another thing that’s promising is that investigators have been able to modify monoclonal antibodies so they stay in the bloodstream for a longer time. That means we may someday be able to use this passive immunization approach as a treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

Collins: That’s good to hear. Speaking of progress, is there any you want to point to within HEAL?

Volkow: There’s a lot of excitement surrounding medication development. We’re interested in developing antidotes that will be more effective in reversing overdose deaths from fentanyl. We’re also interested in providing longer lasting medications for treatment of opioid use disorders, which would improve the likelihood of patients being protected from overdoses.

The Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN) is another HEAL landmark project. It involves a network of researchers that is working with judges and with the workers in jail and prison systems responsible for taking care of individuals with substance use disorders. Through this network, we’ve been able to start to harmonize practices. One thing that’s been transformative in the jail and prison system has been the embracing of telehealth. In the past, telehealth was not much of a reality in jails and prisons because of the fear of it could lead to communications that could perhaps be considered dangerous. That’s changed due to COVID-19. Now, telehealth is providing access to treatment for individuals in jail and prison, many of them with substance use disorders.

Also, because of COVID, many nonviolent individuals in jails and prisons were released. This gives us an opportunity to evaluate how best to help such individuals achieve recovery from substance use disorders. Hopefully we can generate data to show that there are much more effective strategies than incarceration for dealing with substance use disorders.

The HEALing Communities Study, involves Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky—four of the states with the highest rates of mortality from overdoses from the inception of the opioid epidemic. By implementing a battery of interventions for which there is evidence of benefit, this ambitious study set out to decrease overdose mortality by 40 percent in two years. Then, came COVID and turned everything upside down. Still, because we consolidated interactions between agencies, we’ve been able to apply support systems more efficiently in those communities in ways that have been very, very reinforcing. Obviously, there’ve been delays in implementation of interventions that require in-person interactions or that involve hospital emergency departments, which have been saturated with COVID patients.

We’ve learned a lot in the process. I may be too optimistic, but I do believe that we can stay on goal.

Collins: Now, I’d like to transition to a few questions from people who subscribe to the HEAL website. Announced at this meeting three years ago, the HEAL Initiative involves research participants and patients and stakeholders—especially people who have lived experience with pain, addiction, or both.

Let’s get to the first question: “What is NIH doing through HEAL to address the stigma that prevents people who need opioid medications for treatment from getting them?”

Volkow: A crucial question. As we look at the issue of stigma, we need to recognize that there are structural issues in how our society is prioritizing the importance of substance use disorders and the investments devoted to them. And we need to recognize that substance use disorder doesn’t exist in isolation; it is frequently comorbid with mental illness.

We need to listen. Some of the issues that we believe are most problematic are not. We need to empower these communities to speak up and help them do so. This is probably one of the most important things that we can do in terms of addressing stigma for addiction.

Collins: Absolutely. The HEAL Initiative has a number of projects that are focusing on stigma and coming up with tools to help reduce this. And here’s our second question: “In small communities, how can we provide more access to medications for opioid use disorder?”

Volkow: One project funded through HEAL was to evaluate the effectiveness of community pharmacies for delivering buprenorphine to individuals with opioid use disorder. The results show that patients receiving buprenorphine through community pharmacies in rural areas had as good outcomes as patients being treated by specialized clinicians on site.
Another change that’s made things easier is that in March 2020, the DEA relaxed its rules on how a physician can prescribe buprenorphine. In the past, you needed to go physically to see a doctor. Now, the DEA allows a patient to be initiated on buprenorphine through telehealth, and that’s opened the possibility of greater access to treatment in rural communities.

My perspective is let’s look at innovative ways of solving problems. Because the technology is changing in so many ways and so rapidly, let’s take advantage of it.

Collins: Totally with you on that. If there’s a silver lining to COVID-19, it’s that we’ve been forced to take stock of the ways we’ve been doing things. We will learn from this pandemic and change the way we approach so many things in health and medicine as a result. Certainly, opioid use disorder ought to be very high on that list. Let’s move on to another question: “What is the HEAL initiative doing to promote prevention of opioid use?”

Volkow: This is where the HEAL initiative is aiming to provide alternative treatments for the management of pain that reduce the risk of addiction.

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Then there’s the issue of prevention in people who start to take opioids because they either want to get high or escape. With the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen increases in anxiety and in depression. Those are factors that can put a teenager or young adult on a trajectory for higher risk of substance use disorders.

So, what is HEAL doing? There is prevention research specifically targeted, for example, at the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. That is the period of greatest vulnerability of uptake of opioids, or drugs of misuse. We’re also targeting minority groups that may be at very, very high risk. We want to be able to understand the factors that make them more vulnerable to tailor prevention interventions more effectively.

Collins: Today, we’ve shared some of the issues that NIH is wrestling with in its efforts to address the crisis of opioid misuse and overdose, as well as other drugs that are now very much part of the challenge. To learn more, go to the HEAL website. You can also send us your thoughts through the HEAL Idea Exchange.

These developments give me hope in the wake of a very difficult year. Clearly, we still have the capacity to work together, we are resilient, and we are determined to put an end to our nation’s opioid crisis.

Volkow: Francis, I want to thank you for your incredible leadership and your support. I hope the COVID pandemic will bring forth a more equitable system, in which all people are given the chance for resilience that maximizes their life, happiness, and productivity. I think science is an extraordinary tool to help us do that.

Links:

Video: The 2021 Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit: Francis Collins with Nora Volkow (NIH)

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

HEAL Idea Exchange (NIH)

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH)

Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, A 2021 Virtual Experience


Following COVID-19 Vaccines Across the United States

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Vaccine Tracker

Recently, there is a new and very hopeful COVID-19 number for everyone to track: the total number of vaccine doses that have been administered in the United States. If 80 percent of Americans roll up their sleeves in the coming months and accept COVID-19 vaccinations, we can greatly slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in our communities and bring this horrible pandemic to an end in 2021.

So far, more than 20 million people in our country have received one or two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. While this number is lower than initially projected for a variety of logistical reasons, we’re already seeing improvements in the distribution system that has made it possible to get close to 1 million doses administered per day.

If you want to keep track of the vaccine progress in your state over the coming weeks, it’s now pretty easy to do online. A fine resource is the vaccine information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Data Tracker. It offers an interactive state-by-state map, as well as data on vaccinations in long-term care facilities. Keep in mind that there’s a delay of three to five days in reporting actual vaccinations from the states.

There’s also a lot of useful information on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center’s Vaccine Tracker. Posting the daily updates is a team, led by William Moss, that draws on the expertise of data scientists, analysts, programmers, and researchers. The Hopkins team gathers its vaccination data from each state’s official dashboard, webpages, press releases, or wherever cumulative numbers are reported. Not all states publish the same vaccine information, and that’s what can make the Vaccine Tracker so challenging to compile.

The Hopkins team now presents on its homepage the top 10 U. S. states and territories to vaccinate fully the highest percentage of their residents. With another click, there’s also a full rundown of vaccine administration by state and territory, plus the District of Columbia. The site also links to lots of other information about COVID-19—including cases, testing, contact tracing, and an interactive tool about vaccine development.

In uncertain times, knowledge can be a source of comfort. That’s what makes these interactive COVID-19 resources so helpful and empowering. They show that, with time, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines will indeed coming to everyone. I hope that you will accept your vaccine, like I did when given the opportunity. However, until we get to the point where most Americans are immunized, we must stay vigilant and keep up our tried-and-true public health measures such as wearing masks, limiting physical interactions (especially indoors), and washing our hands.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

CDC COVID Data Tracker (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

Coronavirus Resource Center (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)

William Moss (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore)

International Vaccine Access Center (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore)



The People’s Picks for Best Posts

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It’s 2021—Happy New Year! Time sure flies in the blogosphere. It seems like just yesterday that I started the NIH Director’s Blog to highlight recent advances in biology and medicine, many supported by NIH. Yet it turns out that more than eight years have passed since this blog got rolling and we are fast approaching my 1,000th post!

I’m pleased that millions of you have clicked on these posts to check out some very cool science and learn more about NIH and its mission. Thanks to the wonders of social media software, we’ve been able to tally up those views to determine each year’s most-popular post. So, I thought it would be fun to ring in the New Year by looking back at a few of your favorites, sort of a geeky version of a top 10 countdown or the People’s Choice Awards. It was interesting to see what topics generated the greatest interest. Spoiler alert: diet and exercise seemed to matter a lot! So, without further ado, I present the winners:

2013: Fighting Obesity: New Hopes from Brown Fat. Brown fat, one of several types of fat made by our bodies, was long thought to produce body heat rather than store energy. But Shingo Kajimura and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, showed in a study published in the journal Nature, that brown fat does more than that. They discovered a gene that acts as a molecular switch to produce brown fat, then linked mutations in this gene to obesity in humans.

What was also nice about this blog post is that it appeared just after Kajimura had started his own lab. In fact, this was one of the lab’s first publications. One of my goals when starting the blog was to feature young researchers, and this work certainly deserved the attention it got from blog readers. Since highlighting this work, research on brown fat has continued to progress, with new evidence in humans suggesting that brown fat is an effective target to improve glucose homeostasis.

2014: In Memory of Sam Berns. I wrote this blog post as a tribute to someone who will always be very near and dear to me. Sam Berns was born with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, one of the rarest of rare diseases. After receiving the sad news that this brave young man had passed away, I wrote: “Sam may have only lived 17 years, but in his short life he taught the rest of us a lot about how to live.”

Affecting approximately 400 people worldwide, progeria causes premature aging. Without treatment, children with progeria, who have completely normal intellectual development, die of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, on average in their early teens.

From interactions with Sam and his parents in the early 2000s, I started to study progeria in my NIH lab, eventually identifying the gene responsible for the disorder. My group and others have learned a lot since then. So, it was heartening last November when the Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment for progeria. It’s an oral medication called Zokinvy (lonafarnib) that helps prevent the buildup of defective protein that has deadly consequences. In clinical trials, the drug increased the average survival time of those with progeria by more than two years. It’s a good beginning, but we have much more work to do in the memory of Sam and to help others with progeria. Watch for more about new developments in applying gene editing to progeria in the next few days.

2015: Cytotoxic T Cells on Patrol. Readers absolutely loved this post. When the American Society of Cell Biology held its first annual video competition, called CellDance, my blog featured some of the winners. Among them was this captivating video from Alex Ritter, then working with cell biologist Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The video stars a roving, specialized component of our immune system called cytotoxic T cells. Their job is to seek out and destroy any foreign or detrimental cells. Here, these T cells literally convince a problem cell to commit suicide, a process that takes about 10 minutes from detection to death.

These cytotoxic T cells are critical players in cancer immunotherapy, in which a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. Cancer immunotherapy remains a promising area of research that continues to progress, with a lot of attention now being focused on developing immunotherapies for common, solid tumors like breast cancer. Ritter is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Ira Mellman, Genentech, South San Francisco. His focus has shifted to how cancer cells protect themselves from T cells. And video buffs—get this—Ritter says he’s now created even cooler videos that than the one in this post.

2016: Exercise Releases Brain-Healthy Protein. The research literature is pretty clear: exercise is good for the brain. In this very popular post, researchers led by Hyo Youl Moon and Henriette van Praag of NIH’s National Institute on Aging identified a protein secreted by skeletal muscle cells to help explore the muscle-brain connection. In a study in Cell Metabolism, Moon and his team showed that this protein called cathepsin B makes its way into the brain and after a good workout influences the development of new neural connections. This post is also memorable to me for the photo collage that accompanied the original post. Why? If you look closely at the bottom right, you’ll see me exercising—part of my regular morning routine!

2017: Muscle Enzyme Explains Weight Gain in Middle Age. The struggle to maintain a healthy weight is a lifelong challenge for many of us. While several risk factors for weight gain, such as counting calories, are within our control, there’s a major one that isn’t: age. Jay Chung, a researcher with NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and his team discovered that the normal aging process causes levels of an enzyme called DNA-PK to rise in animals as they approach middle age. While the enzyme is known for its role in DNA repair, their studies showed it also slows down metabolism, making it more difficult to burn fat.

Since publishing this paper in Cell Metabolism, Chung has been busy trying to understand how aging increases the activity of DNA-PK and its ability to suppress renewal of the cell’s energy-producing mitochondria. Without renewal of damaged mitochondria, excess oxidants accumulate in cells that then activate DNA-PK, which contributed to the damage in the first place. Chung calls it a “vicious cycle” of aging and one that we’ll be learning more about in the future.

2018: Has an Alternative to Table Sugar Contributed to the C. Diff. Epidemic? This impressive bit of microbial detective work had blog readers clicking and commenting for several weeks. So, it’s no surprise that it was the runaway People’s Choice of 2018.

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a common bacterium that lives harmlessly in the gut of most people. But taking antibiotics can upset the normal balance of healthy gut microbes, allowing C. diff. to multiply and produce toxins that cause inflammation and diarrhea.

In the 2000s, C. diff. infections became far more serious and common in American hospitals, and Robert Britton, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wanted to know why. He and his team discovered that two subtypes of C. diff have adapted to feed on the sugar trehalose, which was approved as a food additive in the United States during the early 2000s. The team’s findings, published in the journal Nature, suggested that hospitals and nursing homes battling C. diff. outbreaks may want to take a closer look at the effect of trehalose in the diet of their patients.

2019: Study Finds No Benefit for Dietary Supplements. This post that was another one that sparked a firestorm of comments from readers. A team of NIH-supported researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, found that people who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to amounts that are available from food consumption. The researchers based their conclusion on an analysis of the well-known National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 survey data. The team, which reported its data in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess.

2020: Genes, Blood Type Tied to Risk of Severe COVID-19. Typically, my blog focuses on research involving many different diseases. That changed in 2020 due to the emergence of a formidable public health challenge: the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Since last March, the blog has featured 85 posts on COVID-19, covering all aspects of the research response and attracting more visitors than ever. And which post got the most views? It was one that highlighted a study, published last June in the New England Journal of Medicine, that suggested the clues to people’s variable responses to COVID-19 may be found in our genes and our blood types.

The researchers found that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death. The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system.

In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.

That’s it for the blog’s year-by-year Top Hits. But wait! I’d also like to give shout outs to the People’s Choice winners in two other important categories—history and cool science images.

Top History Post: HeLa Cells: A New Chapter in An Enduring Story. Published in August 2013, this post remains one of the blog’s greatest hits with readers. The post highlights science’s use of cancer cells taken in the 1950s from a young Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells had an amazing property not seen before: they could be grown continuously in laboratory conditions. The “new chapter” featured in this post is an agreement with the Lacks family that gives researchers access to the HeLa genome data, while still protecting the family’s privacy and recognizing their enormous contribution to medical research. And the acknowledgments rightfully keep coming from those who know this remarkable story, which has been chronicled in both book and film. Recently, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act to honor her extraordinary life and examine access to government-funded cancer clinical trials for traditionally underrepresented groups.

Top Snapshots of Life: A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells. My blog posts come in several categories. One that you may have noticed is “Snapshots of Life,” which provides a showcase for cool images that appear in scientific journals and often dominate Science as Art contests. My blog has published dozens of these eye-catching images, representing a broad spectrum of the biomedical sciences. But the blog People’s Choice goes to a very recent addition that reveals exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when they are infected with the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. This vivid image, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This image squeezed in just ahead of another highly popular post from Steve Ramirez, Boston University, in 2019 that showed “What a Memory Looks Like.”

As we look ahead to 2021, I want to thank each of my blog’s readers for your views and comments over the last eight years. I love to hear from you, so keep on clicking! I’m confident that 2021 will generate a lot more amazing and bloggable science, including even more progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic that made our past year so very challenging.


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)


Reasons for Gratitude Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Thanksgiving Tribute
Credit: Getty Images

For many of us, Thanksgiving will feel really different this year. Less will need to be more, as we celebrate alone or with our immediate household members to stay safe and help combat the surge in COVID-19 cases across most of the land. And yet, times of trouble can also help us to focus on what’s really important in our lives. So, even as we face these challenges and the range of emotions that arise with them, it’s worth remembering that this Thanksgiving, there remain many reasons to be grateful.

I’m certainly grateful for a loving family and friends that provide depth and meaning to life, even though most of us can’t be physically together and hug each other right now. My faith is also a source of comfort and reassurance at this time. I also feel a deep sense of gratitude for everyone who has sacrificed for the common good over the last several months, especially those who’ve masked up and physically distanced to provide essential services in our communities to keep everything going. You will no doubt have your own list of heroes, but here are just a few of mine:

Healthcare workers, thanks for all you do under such difficult and dangerous conditions.
Essential workers, thanks for clocking in every day. That includes bus drivers, grocery store cashiers, waste collectors, tradespeople, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and all those who deliver packages to my door.
Teachers, working remotely or in person. Thanks for your commitment to our students and continuing to bring out the best in them.
Parents, including so many now working with kids at home. Thanks for juggling responsibilities and making everything work.
Clinical trials participants. Your participation is critical for developing treatments and vaccines. Thanks to you all, including the fine examples of many public figures, including the trial participation of Senator Rob Portman and financial contribution of legendary performer Dolly Parton.
Everyone following the 3 W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, and Wash your hands. Thank you for doing your part every day to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community safe. You are our front lines in the battle.
Researchers, from both the public and private sectors, who are working in partnership all around the world. Our shared goal is to learn all we can about COVID-19 and to develop better tests, new treatments, and safe and effective vaccines.

On that note, you may have heard about the very promising interim clinical trial results of an investigational COVID-19 vaccine known as mRNA-1273, co-developed by the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA, and NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That mRNA vaccine was found to be 94.5 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19. Another mRNA vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, also recently was shown to be 95 percent effective and has now submitted an application for emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition, AstraZeneca announced that, in a late-stage clinical trial, the vaccine it developed in partnership with the University of Oxford reduced the risk of COVID-19 infection by an average of 70 percent, with up to 90 percent efficacy in one dosing regimen.

Other promising vaccine candidates continue to work their way through clinical trials, and we’ll no doubt be hearing more about those soon. It is truly remarkable to accomplish in 10 months what normally takes about 8 years. Therapeutic progress is also moving forward rapidly, with a second monoclonal antibody treatment for high-risk outpatients receiving emergency use authorization from the FDA just a few days ago.

For all of these advances, I am immensely grateful. Of course, it will take time and continued study to get a COVID-19 vaccine fully approved and distributed to all those who need it. The success of any vaccine also will hinge on people across the country—including you and all those whom I’ve recognized here—making the choice to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

As we look ahead to that day when the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, I encourage you to take some time to jot down your own list of reasons to be grateful. Encourage family members to do the same and take some time to share them with one another, whether it’s around the table or by email, phone, or videoconferencing. The holidays are a time for making memories and—as different as it may look—this year is no different. So, while you’re enjoying your Thanksgiving meal around a smaller table, remember that you’re doing it from a place of love and gratitude. I wish for you a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID) (NIH)

Your Health: Holiday Celebrations and Small Gatherings (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

Your Health: Personal and Social Activities (CDC)


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