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Dynamic View of Spike Protein Reveals Prime Targets for COVID-19 Treatments

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SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein showing attached glycans and regions for antibody binding.
Credit: Sikora M, PLoS Comput Biol, 2021

This striking portrait features the spike protein that crowns SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This highly flexible protein has settled here into one of its many possible conformations during the process of docking onto a human cell before infecting it.

This portrait, however, isn’t painted on canvas. It was created on a computer screen from sophisticated 3D simulations of the spike protein in action. The aim was to map its many shape-shifting maneuvers accurately at the atomic level in hopes of detecting exploitable structural vulnerabilities to thwart the virus.

For example, notice the many chain-like structures (green) that adorn the protein’s surface (white). They are sugar molecules called glycans that are thought to shield the spike protein by sweeping away antibodies. Also notice areas (purple) that the simulation identified as the most-attractive targets for antibodies, based on their apparent lack of protection by those glycans.

This work, published recently in the journal PLoS Computational Biology [1], was performed by a German research team that included Mateusz Sikora, Max Planck Institute of Biophysics, Frankfurt. The researchers used a computer application called molecular dynamics (MD) simulation to power up and model the conformational changes in the spike protein on a time scale of a few microseconds. (A microsecond is 0.000001 second.)

The new simulations suggest that glycans act as a dynamic shield on the spike protein. They liken them to windshield wipers on a car. Rather than being fixed in space, those glycans sweep back and forth to protect more of the protein surface than initially meets the eye.

But just as wipers miss spots on a windshield that lie beyond their tips, glycans also miss spots of the protein just beyond their reach. It’s those spots that the researchers suggest might be prime targets on the spike protein that are especially promising for the design of future vaccines and therapeutic antibodies.

This same approach can now be applied to identifying weak spots in the coronavirus’s armor. It also may help researchers understand more fully the implications of newly emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. The hope is that by capturing this devastating virus and its most critical proteins in action, we can continue to develop and improve upon vaccines and therapeutics.

Reference:

[1] Computational epitope map of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Sikora M, von Bülow S, Blanc FEC, Gecht M, Covino R, Hummer G. PLoS Comput Biol. 2021 Apr 1;17(4):e1008790.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Mateusz Sikora (Max Planck Institute of Biophysics, Frankfurt, Germany)

The surprising properties of the coronavirus envelope (Interview with Mateusz Sikora), Scilog, November 16, 2020.


A Real-World Look at COVID-19 Vaccines Versus New Variants

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A woman receiving a vaccine from a doctor
Credit: Getty Images/Andrey Popov

Clinical trials have shown the COVID-19 vaccines now being administered around the country are highly effective in protecting fully vaccinated individuals from the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. But will they continue to offer sufficient protection as the frequency of more transmissible and, in some cases, deadly emerging variants rise?

More study and time is needed to fully answer this question. But new data from Israel offers an early look at how the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is holding up in the real world against coronavirus “variants of concern,” including the B.1.1.7 “U.K. variant” and the B.1.351 “South African variant.” And, while there is some evidence of breakthrough infections, the findings overall are encouraging.

Israel was an obvious place to look for answers to breakthrough infections. By last March, more than 80 percent of the country’s vaccine-eligible population had received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. An earlier study in Israel showed that the vaccine offered 94 percent to 96 percent protection against infection across age groups, comparable to the results of clinical trials. But it didn’t dig into any important differences in infection rates with newly emerging variants, post-vaccination.

To dig a little deeper into this possibility, a team led by Adi Stern, Tel Aviv University, and Shay Ben-Shachar, Clalit Research Institute, Tel Aviv, looked for evidence of breakthrough infections in several hundred people who’d had at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine [1]. The idea was, if this vaccine were less effective in protecting against new variants of concern, the proportion of infections caused by them should be higher in vaccinated compared to unvaccinated individuals.

During the study, reported as a pre-print in MedRxiv, it became clear that B.1.1.7 was the predominant SARS-CoV-2 variant in Israel, with its frequency increasing over time. By comparison, the B.1.351 “South African” variant was rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of cases sampled in the study. No other variants of concern, as defined by the World Health Organization, were detected.

Graph showing percentages of virus variants. B.1.1.7 is nearly 100% by March
Caption: Changing variant frequencies during the study. Credit: Adapted from Kustin T, medRxiv, 2021

In total, the researchers sequenced SARS-CoV-2 from more than 800 samples, including vaccinated individuals and matched unvaccinated individuals with similar characteristics including age, sex, and geographic location. They identified nearly 250 instances in which an individual became infected with SARS-CoV-2 after receiving their first vaccine dose, meaning that they were only partially protected. Almost 150 got infected sometime after receiving the second dose.

Interestingly, the evidence showed that these breakthrough infections with the B.1.1.7 variant occurred slightly more often in people after the first vaccine dose compared to unvaccinated people. No evidence was found for increased breakthrough rates of B.1.1.7 a week or more after the second dose. In contrast, after the second vaccine dose, infection with the B.1.351 became slightly more frequent. The findings show that people remain susceptible to B.1.1.7 following a single dose of vaccine. They also suggest that the two-dose vaccine may be slightly less effective against B.1.351 compared to the original or B.1.1.7 variants.

It’s important to note, however, that the researchers only observed 11 infections with the B.1.351 variant—eight of them in individuals vaccinated with two doses. Interestingly, all eight tested positive seven to 13 days after receiving their second dose. No one in the study tested positive for this variant two weeks or more after the second dose.

Many questions remain, including whether the vaccines reduced the duration and/or severity of infections. Nevertheless, the findings are a reminder that—while these vaccines offer remarkable protection—they are not foolproof. Breakthrough infections can and do occur.

In fact, in a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, NIH-supported researchers detailed the experiences of two fully vaccinated individuals in New York who tested positive for COVID-19 [2]. Though both recovered quickly at home, genomic data in those cases revealed multiple mutations in both viral samples, including a variant first identified in South Africa and Brazil, and another, which has been spreading in New York since November.

These findings in Israel and the United States also highlight the importance of tracking coronavirus variants and making sure that all eligible individuals get fully vaccinated as soon as they have the opportunity. They show that COVID-19 testing will continue to play an important role, even in those who’ve already been vaccinated. This is even more important now as new variants continue to rise in frequency.

Just over 100 million Americans aged 18 and older—about 40 percent of adults—are now fully vaccinated [3]. However, we need to get that number much higher. If you or a loved one haven’t yet been vaccinated, please consider doing so. It will help to save lives and bring this pandemic to an end.

References:

[1] Evidence for increased breakthrough rates of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern in BNT162b2 mRNA vaccinated individuals. Kustin T et al. medRxiv. April 16, 2021.

[2] Vaccine breakthrough infections with SARS-CoV-2 variants. Hacisuleyman E, Hale C, Saito Y, Blachere NE, Bergh M, Conlon EG, Schaefer-Babajew DJ, DaSilva J, Muecksch F, Gaebler C, Lifton R, Nussenzweig MC, Hatziioannou T, Bieniasz PD, Darnell RB. N Engl J Med. 2021 Apr 21.

[3] COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Stern Lab (Tel Aviv University, Israel)

Ben-Shachar Lab (Clalit Research Institute, Tel Aviv, Israel)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Tracking the Evolution of a ‘Variant of Concern’ in Brazil

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P.1 Variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the center of standard SARS-CoV-2. Arrows move out from the variant

By last October, about three out of every four residents of Manaus, Brazil already had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 [1]. And yet, despite hopes of achieving “herd immunity” in this city of 2.2 million in the Amazon region, the virus came roaring back in late 2020 and early 2021 to cause a second wave of illness and death [2]. How is this possible?

The answer offers a lesson in viral evolution, especially when an infectious virus such as SARS-CoV-2 replicates and spreads through a population largely unchecked. In a recent study in the journal Science, researchers tied the city’s resurgence of SARS-CoV-2 to the emergence and rapid spread of a new SARS-CoV-2 “variant of concern” known as P.1 [3]. This variant carries a unique constellation of mutations that allow it not only to sneak past the human immune system and re-infect people, but also to be about twice as transmissible as earlier variants.

To understand how this is possible, consider that each time the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 makes copies of itself in an infected person, there’s a chance a mistake will be made. Each mistake can produce a new variant that may go on to make more copies of itself. In most cases, those random errors are of little to no consequence. This is evolution in action.

But sometimes a spelling change can occur that benefits the virus. In the special case of patients with suppressed immune systems, the virus can have ample opportunity to accrue an unusually high number of mutations. Variants carrying beneficial mutations can make more copies of themselves than other variants, allowing them to build their numbers and spread to cause more infection.

At this advanced stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, such rapidly spreading new variants remain cause for serious concern. That includes variants such as B.1.351, which originated in South Africa; B.1.1.7 which emerged in the United Kingdom; and now P.1 from Manaus, Brazil.

In the new study, Nuno Faria and Samir Bhatt, Imperial College London, U.K., and Ester Cerdeira Sabino, Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil, and their colleagues sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes from 184 patient samples collected in Manaus in November and December 2020. The research was conducted under the auspices of the Brazil-UK Centre for Arbovirus Discovery, Diagnosis, Genomics and Epidemiology (CADDE), a project focused on viral genomics and epidemiology for public health.

Those genomic data revealed the P.1 variant had acquired 17 new mutations. Ten were in the spike protein, which is the segment of the virus that binds onto human cells and the target of current COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, the new work reveals that three of these spike protein mutations make it easier for the P.1 spike to bind the human ACE2 receptor, which is SARS-CoV-2’s preferred entry point.

The first P.1 variant case was detected by genomic surveillance on December 6, 2020, after which it spread rapidly. Through further evolutionary analysis, the team estimates that P.1 must have emerged, undetected for a brief time, in mid-November 2020.

To understand better how the P.1 variant led to such an explosion of new COVID-19 cases, the researchers developed a mathematical model that integrated the genomic data with mortality data. The model suggests that P.1 may be 1.7 to 2.4 times more transmissible than earlier variants. They also estimate that a person previously infected with a variant other than P.1 will have only 54 percent to 79 percent protection against a subsequent infection with P.1.

The researchers also observed an increase in mortality following the emergence of the P.1 variant. However, it’s not yet clear if that’s an indication P.1 is inherently more deadly than earlier variants. It’s possible the increased mortality is related primarily to the extra stress on the healthcare system in Manaus from treating so many people with COVID-19.

These findings are yet another reminder of the importance of genomic surveillance and international data sharing for detecting and characterizing emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants quickly. It’s worth noting that at about the same time this variant was detected in Brazil, it also was reported in four individuals who had traveled to Brazil from Japan. The P.1 variant continues to spread rapidly across Brazil. It has also been detected in more than 37 countries [4], including the United States, where it now accounts for more than 1 percent of new cases [5].

No doubt you are wondering what this means for vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, that have been used to immunize (at least one dose) over 140 million people in the United States. Here the news is encouraging. Serum from individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine had titers of neutralizing antibodies that were only slightly reduced for P.1 compared to the original SARS-CoV-2 virus [6]. Therefore, the vaccine is predicted to be highly protective. This is another example of a vaccine providing more protection than a natural infection.

The United States has made truly remarkable progress in combating COVID-19, but we must heed this lesson from Manaus: this terrible pandemic isn’t over just yet. While the P.1 variant remains at low levels here for now, the “U.K. variant” B.1.1.7 continues to spread rapidly and now is the most prevalent variant circulating in the U.S., accounting for 44 percent of new cases [6]. Fortunately, the mRNA vaccines also work well against B.1.1.7.

We must continue to do absolutely everything possible, individually and collectively, to prevent these new SARS-CoV-2 variants from slowing or even canceling the progress made over the last year. We need to remain vigilant for just a while longer, while encouraging our friends, neighbors, and loved ones to get vaccinated.

References:

[1] Three-quarters attack rate of SARS-CoV-2 in the Brazilian Amazon during a largely unmitigated epidemic. Buss, L. F., C. A. Prete, Jr., C. M. M. Abrahim, A. C. Dye, V. H. Nascimento, N. R. Faria and E. C. Sabino et al. (2021). Science 371(6526): 288-292.

[2] Resurgence of COVID-19 in Manaus, Brazil, despite high seroprevalence. Sabino EC, Buss LF, Carvalho MPS, Prete Jr CCA, Crispim MAE, Fraiji NA, Pereira RHM, Paraga KV, Peixoto PS, Kraemer MUG, Oikawa MJ, Salomon T, Cucunuba ZM, Castro MC, Santos AAAS, Nascimento VH, Pereira HS, Ferguson NM, Pybus OG, Kucharski A, Busch MP, Dye C, Faria NR Lancet. 2021 Feb 6;397(10273):452-455.

[3] Genomics and epidemiology of the P.1 SARS-CoV-2 lineage in Manaus, Brazil. Faria NR, Mellan TA, Whittaker C, Claro IM, Fraiji NA, Carvalho MDPSS, Pybus OG, Flaxman S, Bhatt S, Sabino EC et al. Science. 2021 Apr 14:eabh2644.

[4] GRINCH Global Report Investigating novel coronavirus haplotypes. PANGO Lineages.

[5] COVID Data Tracker. Variant Proportions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[6] Antibody evasion by the P.1 strain of SARS-CoV-2. Dejnirattisai W, Zhou D, Supasa P, Liu C, Mongkolsapaya J, Ren J, Stuart DI, Screaton GR, et al. Cell. 2021 Mar 30:S0092-8674(21)00428-1.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Brazil-UK Centre for Arbovirus Discovery, Diagnosis, Genomics and Epidemiology (CADDE)

Nuno Faria (Imperial College, London, U.K.)

Samir Bhatt (Imperial College)

Ester Cerdeira Sabino (Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Study Demonstrates Saliva Can Spread Novel Coronavirus

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Light microscopy showing pink RNA for SARS-CoV-2
Caption: SARS-CoV-2 (pink) and its preferred human receptor ACE2 (white) were found in human salivary gland cells (outlined in green). Credit: Paola Perez, Warner Lab, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, NIH

COVID-19 is primarily considered a respiratory illness that affects the lungs, upper airways, and nasal cavity. But COVID-19 can also affect other parts of the body, including the digestive system, blood vessels, and kidneys. Now, a new study has added something else: the mouth.

The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, shows that SARS-CoV-2, which is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, can actively infect cells that line the mouth and salivary glands. The new findings may help explain why COVID-19 can be detected by saliva tests, and why about half of COVID-19 cases include oral symptoms, such as loss of taste, dry mouth, and oral ulcers. These results also suggest that the mouth and its saliva may play an important—and underappreciated—role in spreading SARS-CoV-2 throughout the body and, perhaps, transmitting it from person to person.

The latest work comes from Blake Warner of NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; Kevin Byrd, Adams School of Dentistry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and their international colleagues. The researchers were curious about whether the mouth played a role in transmitting SARS-CoV-2. They were already aware that transmission is more likely when people speak, cough, and even sing. They also knew from diagnostic testing that the saliva of people with COVID-19 can contain high levels of SARS-CoV-2. But did that virus in the mouth and saliva come from elsewhere? Or, was SARS-CoV-2 infecting and replicating in cells within the mouth as well?

To find out, the research team surveyed oral tissue from healthy people in search of cells that express the ACE2 receptor protein and the TMPRSS2 enzyme protein, both of which SARS-CoV-2 depends upon to enter and infect human cells. They found the proteins may be expressed individually in the primary cells of all types of salivary glands and in tissues lining the oral cavity. Indeed, a small portion of salivary gland and gingival (gum) cells around our teeth, simultaneously expressed the genes encoding ACE2 and TMPRSS2.

Next, the team detected signs of SARS-CoV-2 in just over half of the salivary gland tissue samples that it examined from people with COVID-19. The samples included salivary gland tissue from one person who had died from COVID-19 and another with acute illness.

The researchers also found evidence that the coronavirus was actively replicating to make more copies of itself. In people with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19, oral cells that shed into the saliva bathing the mouth were found to contain RNA for SARS-CoV-2, as well its proteins that it uses to enter human cells.

The researchers then collected saliva from another group of 35 volunteers, including 27 with mild COVID-19 symptoms and another eight who were asymptomatic. Of the 27 people with symptoms, those with virus in their saliva were more likely to report loss of taste and smell, suggesting that oral infection might contribute to those symptoms of COVID-19, though the primary cause may be infection of the olfactory tissues in the nose.

Another important question is whether SARS-CoV-2, while suspended in saliva, can infect other healthy cells. To get the answer, the researchers exposed saliva from eight people with asymptomatic COVID-19 to healthy cells grown in a lab dish. Saliva from two of the infected volunteers led to infection of the healthy cells. These findings raise the unfortunate possibility that even people with asymptomatic COVID-19 might unknowingly transmit SARS-CoV-2 to other people through their saliva.

Overall, the findings suggest that the mouth plays a greater role in COVID-19 infection and transmission than previously thought. The researchers suggest that virus-laden saliva, when swallowed or inhaled, may spread virus into the throat, lungs, or digestive system. Knowing this raises the hope that a better understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 infects the mouth could help in pointing to new ways to prevent the spread of this devastating virus.

Reference:

[1] SARS-CoV-2 infection of the oral cavity and saliva. Huang N, Pérez P, Kato T, Mikami Y, Chiorini JA, Kleiner DE, Pittaluga S, Hewitt SM, Burbelo PD, Chertow D; NIH COVID-19 Autopsy Consortium; HCA Oral and Craniofacial Biological Network, Frank K, Lee J, Boucher RC, Teichmann SA, Warner BM, Byrd KM, et. al Nat Med. 2021 Mar 25.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Saliva & Salivary Gland Disorders (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)

Blake Warner (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)

Kevin Byrd (Adams School of Dentistry at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

NIH Support: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


Infections with ‘U.K. Variant’ B.1.1.7 Have Greater Risk of Mortality

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One coronavirus in a group looks different and is labeled B.1.1.7 variant. Lines radiate from Britain on a map.

Since the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, was first reported in January 2020, thousands of variants have been reported. In the vast majority of cases, these variants, which arise from random genomic changes as SARS-CoV-2 makes copies of itself in an infected person, haven’t raised any alarm among public health officials. But that’s now changed with the emergence of at least three variants carrying mutations that potentially make them even more dangerous.

At the top of this short list is a variant known as B.1.1.7, first detected in the United Kingdom in September 2020. This variant is considerably more contagious than the original virus. It has spread rapidly around the globe and likely accounts already for at least one-third of all cases in the United States [1]. Now comes more troubling news: emerging evidence indicates that infection with this B.1.1.7 variant also comes with an increased risk of severe illness and death [2].

The findings, reported in Nature, come from Nicholas Davies, Karla Diaz-Ordaz, and Ruth Keogh, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The London team earlier showed that this new variant is 43 to 90 percent more transmissible than pre-existing variants that had been circulating in England [3]. But in the latest paper, the researchers followed up on conflicting reports about the virulence of B.1.1.7.

They did so with a large British dataset linking more than 2.2 million positive SARS-CoV-2 tests to 17,452 COVID-19 deaths from September 1, 2020, to February 14, 2021. In about half of the cases (accounting for nearly 5,000 deaths), it was possible to discern whether or not the infection had been caused by the B.1.1.7 variant.

Based on this evidence, the researchers calculated the risk of death associated with B.1.1.7 infection. Their estimates suggest that B.1.1.7 infection was associated with 55 percent greater mortality compared to other SARS-CoV-2 variants over this time period.

For a 55- to 69-year-old male, this translates to a 0.9-percent absolute, or personal, risk of death, up from 0.6 percent for the older variants. That means nine in every 1,000 people in this age group who test positive with the B.1.1.7 variant would be expected to die from COVID-19 a month later. For those infected with the original virus, that number would be six.

The U.S. percentage of B.1.1.7 started near zero on January 2, 2021 but by March 13 was over 20%.
Adapted from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

These findings are in keeping with those of another recent study reported in the British Medical Journal [4]. In that case, researchers at the University of Exeter and the University of Bristol found that the B.1.1.7 variant was associated with a 64 percent greater chance of dying compared to earlier variants. That’s based on an analysis of data from more than 100,000 COVID-19 patients in the U.K. from October 1, 2020, to January 28, 2021.

That this variant comes with increased disease severity and mortality is particularly troubling news, given the highly contagious nature of B.1.1.7. In fact, Davies’ team has concluded that the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants now threaten to slow or even cancel out improvements in COVID-19 treatment that have been made over the last year. These variants include not only B1.1.7, but also B.1.351 originating in South Africa and P.1 from Brazil.

The findings are yet another reminder that, while we’re making truly remarkable progress in the fight against COVID-19 with increasing availability of safe and effective vaccines (more than 45 million Americans are now fully immunized), now is not the time to get complacent. This devastating pandemic isn’t over yet.

The best way to continue the fight against all SARS-CoV-2 variants is for each one of us to do absolutely everything we can to stop their spread. This means that taking the opportunity to get vaccinated as soon as it is offered to you, and continuing to practice those public health measures we summarize as the three Ws: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands often.

References:

[1] US COVID-19 Cases Caused by Variants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[2] Increased mortality in community-tested cases of SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.7. Davies NG, Jarvis CI; CMMID COVID-19 Working Group, Edmunds WJ, Jewell NP, Diaz-Ordaz K, Keogh RH. Nature. 2021 Mar 15.

[3] Estimated transmissibility and impact of SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.7 in England. Davies NG, Abbott S, Barnard RC, Jarvis CI, Kucharski AJ, Munday JD, Pearson CAB, Russell TW, Tully DC, Washburne AD, Wenseleers T, Gimma A, Waites W, Wong KLM, van Zandvoort K, Silverman JD; CMMID COVID-19 Working Group; COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, Diaz-Ordaz K, Keogh R, Eggo RM, Funk S, Jit M, Atkins KE, Edmunds WJ.
Science. 2021 Mar 3:eabg3055.

[4] Risk of mortality in patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern 202012/1: matched cohort study. Challen R, Brooks-Pollock E, Read JM, Dyson L, Tsaneva-Atanasova K, Danon L. BMJ. 2021 Mar 9;372:n579.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Nicholas Davies (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, U.K.)

Ruth Keogh (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, U.K.)


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