We are in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and across the world, most restrictions have lifted, and society is trying to get back to “normal.” But for many people—potentially millions globally—there is no getting back to normal just yet.
They are still living with the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection, known as the post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), including Long COVID. These people continue to experience debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, pain, difficulty sleeping, racing heart rate, exercise intolerance, gastrointestinal and other symptoms, as well as cognitive problems that make it difficult to perform at work or school.
This is a public health issue that is in desperate need of answers. Research is essential to address the many puzzling aspects of Long COVID and guide us to effective responses that protect the nation’s long-term health.
For the past two years, NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and my National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) along with several other NIH institutes and the office of the NIH Director, have been leading NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) initiative, a national research program to understand PASC.
The initiative studies core questions such as why COVID-19 infections can have lingering effects, why new symptoms may develop, and what is the impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on other diseases and conditions? Answering these fundamental questions will help to determine the underlying biologic basis of Long COVID. The answers will also help to tell us who is at risk for Long COVID and identify therapies to prevent or treat the condition.
The RECOVER initiative’s wide scope of research is also unprecedented. It is needed because Long COVID is so complex, and history indicates that similar post infectious conditions have defied definitive explanation or effective treatment. Indeed, those experiencing Long COVID report varying symptoms, making it highly unlikely that a single therapy will work for everyone, underscoring the need to pursue multiple therapeutic strategies.
To understand Long COVID fully, hundreds of RECOVER investigators are recruiting more than 17,000 adults (including pregnant people) and more than 18,000 children to take part in cohort studies. Hundreds of enrolling sites have been set up across the country. An autopsy research cohort will also provide further insight into how COVID-19 affects the body’s organs and tissues.
In addition, researchers will analyze electronic health records from millions of people to understand how Long COVID and its symptoms change over time. The RECOVER initiative is also utilizing consistent research protocols across all the study sites. The protocols have been carefully developed with input from patients and advocates, and they are designed to allow for consistent data collection, improve data sharing, and help to accelerate the pace of research.
From the very beginning, people suffering from Long COVID have been our partners in RECOVER. Patients and advocates have contributed important perspectives and provided valuable input into the master protocols and research plans.
Now, with RECOVER underway, individuals with Long COVID, their caregivers, and community members continue to serve a critical role in the Initiative. The National Community Engagement Group (NCEG) has been established to make certain that RECOVER meets the needs of all people affected by Long COVID. The RECOVER Patient and Community Engagement Strategy outlines all the approaches that RECOVER is using to engage with and gather input from individuals impacted by Long COVID.
The NIH recently made more than 40 awards to improve understanding of the underlying biology and pathology of Long COVID. There have already been several important findings published by RECOVER scientists.
For example, in a recent study published in the journal Lancet Digital Health, RECOVER investigators used machine learning to comb through electronic health records to look for signals that may predict whether someone has Long COVID . As new findings, tools, and technologies continue to emerge that help advance our knowledge of the condition, the RECOVER Research Review (R3) Seminar Series will provide a forum for researchers and our partners with up-to-date information about Long COVID research.
It is important to note that post-viral conditions are not a new concept. Many, but not all, of the symptoms reported in Long COVID, including fatigue, post-exertional malaise, chronic musculoskeletal pain, sleep disorders, postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS), and cognitive issues, overlap with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).
ME/CFS is a serious disease that can occur following infection and make people profoundly sick for decades. Like Long COVID, ME/CFS is a heterogenous condition that does not affect everybody in the same way, and the knowledge gained through research on Long COVID may also positively impact the understanding, treatment, and prevention of POTS, ME/CFS, and other chronic diseases.
Unlike other post-viral conditions, people who experience Long COVID were all infected by the same virus—albeit different variants—at a similar point in time. This creates a unique opportunity for RECOVER researchers to study post-viral conditions in real-time.
The opportunity enables scientists to study many people simultaneously while they are still infected to monitor their progress and recovery, and to try to understand why some individuals develop ongoing symptoms. A better understanding of the transition from acute to chronic disease may offer an opportunity to intervene, identify who is at risk of the transition, and develop therapies for people who experience symptoms long after the acute infection has resolved.
The RECOVER initiative will soon announce clinical trials, leveraging data from clinicians and patients in which symptom clusters were identified and can be targeted by various interventions. These trials will investigate therapies that are indicated for other non-COVID conditions and novel treatments for Long COVID.
Through extensive collaboration across the multiple NIH institutes and offices that contribute to the RECOVER effort, our hope is critical answers will emerge soon. These answers will help us to recognize the full range of outcomes and needs resulting from PASC and, most important, enable many people to make a full recovery from COVID-19. We are indebted to the over 10,000 subjects who have already enrolled in RECOVER. Their contributions and the hard work of the RECOVER investigators offer hope for the future to the millions still suffering from the pandemic.
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 18th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
The NIH continues to support the development of some very innovative therapies to control SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. One innovative idea involves a molecular decoy to thwart the coronavirus.
How’s that? The decoy is a specially engineered protein particle that mimics the 3D structure of the ACE2 receptor, a protein on the surface of our cells that the virus’s spike proteins bind to as the first step in causing an infection.
The idea is when these ACE2 decoys are administered therapeutically, they will stick to the spike proteins that crown the coronavirus (see image above). With its spikes covered tightly in decoy, SARS-CoV-2 has a more-limited ability to attach to the real ACE2 and infect our cells.
Recently, the researchers published their initial results in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, and the early data look promising . They found in mouse models of severe COVID-19 that intravenous infusion of an engineered ACE2 decoy prevented lung damage and death. Though more study is needed, the researchers say the decoy therapy could potentially be delivered directly to the lungs through an inhaler and used alone or in combination with other COVID-19 treatments.
The findings come from a research team at the University of Illinois Chicago team, led by Asrar Malik and Jalees Rehman, working in close collaboration with their colleagues at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The researchers had been intrigued by an earlier clinical trial testing the ACE2 decoy strategy . However, in this earlier attempt, the clinical trial found no reduction in mortality. The ACE2 drug candidate, which is soluble and degrades in the body, also proved ineffective in neutralizing the virus.
Rather than give up on the idea, the UIC team decided to give it a try. They engineered a new soluble version of ACE2 that structurally might work better as a decoy than the original one. Their version of ACE2, which includes three changes in the protein’s amino acid building blocks, binds the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein much more tightly. In the lab, it also appeared to neutralize the virus as well as monoclonal antibodies used to treat COVID-19.
To put it to the test, they conducted studies in mice. Normal mice don’t get sick from SARS-CoV-2 because the viral spike can’t bind well to the mouse version of the ACE2 receptor. So, the researchers did their studies in a mouse that carries the human ACE2 and develops a severe acute respiratory syndrome somewhat similar to that seen in humans with severe COVID-19.
In their studies, using both the original viral isolate from Washington State and the Gamma variant (P.1) first detected in Brazil, they found that infected mice infused with their therapeutic ACE2 protein had much lower mortality and showed few signs of severe acute respiratory syndrome. While the protein worked against both versions of the virus, infection with the more aggressive Gamma variant required earlier treatment. The treated mice also regained their appetite and weight, suggesting that they were making a recovery.
Further studies showed that the decoy bound to spike proteins from every variant tested, including Alpha, Beta, Delta and Epsilon. (Omicron wasn’t yet available at the time of the study.) In fact, the decoy bound just as well, if not better, to new variants compared to the original virus.
The researchers will continue their preclinical work. If all goes well, they hope to move their ACE2 decoy into a clinical trial. What’s especially promising about this approach is it could be used in combination with treatments that work in other ways, such as by preventing virus that’s already infected cells from growing or limiting an excessive and damaging immune response to the infection.
Last week, more than 17,500 people in the United States were hospitalized with severe COVID-19. We’ve got to continue to do all we can to save lives, and it will take lots of innovative ideas, like this ACE2 decoy, to put us in a better position to beat this virus once and for all.
But for many months we’ve had hopes that a safe and effective oral medicine could be developed that would reduce the risk of severe illness for individuals just diagnosed with COVID-19. The first indication that those hopes might be realized came from the announcement just a month ago of a 50 percent reduction in hospitalizations from the Merck and Ridgeback drug molnupiravir (originally developed with an NIH grant to Emory University, Atlanta). Now comes word of a second drug with potentially even higher efficacy: an antiviral pill from Pfizer Inc. that targets a different step in the life cycle of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The most recent exciting news started to roll out earlier this month when a Pfizer research team published in the journal Science some promising initial data involving the antiviral pill and its active compound . Then came even bigger news a few days later when Pfizer announced interim results from a large phase 2/3 clinical trial. It found that, when taken within three days of developing symptoms of COVID-19, the pill reduced by 89 percent the risk of hospitalization or death in adults at high risk of progressing to severe illness .
At the recommendation of the clinical trial’s independent data monitoring committee and in consultation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Pfizer has now halted the study based on the strength of the interim findings. Pfizer plans to submit the data to the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) very soon.
Pfizer’s antiviral pill is a protease inhibitor, originally called PF-07321332, or just 332 for short. A protease is an enzyme that cleaves a protein at a specific series of amino acids. The SARS-CoV-2 virus encodes its own protease to help process a large virally-encoded polyprotein into smaller segments that it needs for its life cycle; a protease inhibitor drug can stop that from happening. If the term protease inhibitor rings a bell, that’s because drugs that work in this way already are in use to treat other viruses, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C virus.
In the case of 332, it targets a protease called Mpro, also called the 3CL protease, coded for by SARS-CoV-2. The virus uses this enzyme to snip some longer viral proteins into shorter segments for use in replication. With Mpro out of action, the coronavirus can’t make more of itself to infect other cells.
What’s nice about this therapeutic approach is that mutations to SARS-CoV-2’s surface structures, such as the spike protein, should not affect a protease inhibitor’s effectiveness. The drug targets a highly conserved, but essential, viral enzyme. In fact, Pfizer originally synthesized and pre-clinically evaluated protease inhibitors years ago as a potential treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which is caused by a coronavirus closely related to SARS-CoV-2. This drug might even have efficacy against other coronaviruses that cause the common cold.
In the study published earlier this month in Science , the Pfizer team led by Dafydd Owen, Pfizer Worldwide Research, Cambridge, MA, reported that the latest version of their Mpro inhibitor showed potent antiviral activity in laboratory tests against not just SARS-CoV-2, but all of the coronaviruses they tested that are known to infect people. Further study in human cells and mouse models of SARS-CoV-2 infection suggested that the treatment might work to limit infection and reduce damage to lung tissue.
In the paper in Science, Owen and colleagues also reported the results of a phase 1 clinical trial with six healthy people. They found that their protease inhibitor, when taken orally, was safe and could reach concentrations in the bloodstream that should be sufficient to help combat the virus.
But would it work to treat COVID-19 in an infected person? So far, the preliminary results from the larger clinical trial of the drug candidate, now known as PAXLOVID™, certainly look encouraging. PAXLOVID™ is a formulation that combines the new protease inhibitor with a low dose of an existing drug called ritonavir, which slows the metabolism of some protease inhibitors and thereby keeps them active in the body for longer periods of time.
The phase 2/3 clinical trial included about 1,200 adults from the United States and around the world who had enrolled in the clinical trial. To be eligible, study participants had to have a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 within a five-day period along with mild-to-moderate symptoms of illness. They also required at least one characteristic or condition associated with an increased risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19. Each individual in the study was randomly selected to receive either the experimental antiviral or a placebo every 12 hours for five days.
In people treated within three days of developing COVID-19 symptoms, the Pfizer announcement reports that 0.8 percent (3 of 389) of those who received PAXLOVID™ were hospitalized within 28 days compared to 7 percent (27 of 385) of those who got the placebo. Similarly encouraging results were observed in those who got the treatment within five days of developing symptoms. One percent (6 of 607) on the antiviral were hospitalized versus 6.7 percent (41 of 612) in the placebo group. Overall, there were no deaths among people taking PAXLOVID™; 10 people in the placebo group (1.6 percent) subsequently died.
If all goes well with the FDA review, the hope is that PAXLOVID™ could be prescribed as an at-home treatment to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and deaths. Pfizer also has launched two additional trials of the same drug candidate: one in people with COVID-19 who are at standard risk for developing severe illness and another evaluating its ability to prevent infection in adults exposed to the coronavirus by a household member.
Meanwhile, Britain recently approved the other recently developed antiviral molnupiravir, which slows viral replication in a different way by blocking its ability to copy its RNA genome accurately. The FDA will meet on November 30 to discuss Merck and Ridgeback’s request for an EUA for molnupiravir to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in infected adults at high risk for severe illness . With Thanksgiving and the winter holidays fast approaching, these two promising antiviral drugs are certainly more reasons to be grateful this year.
There are now several monoclonal antibodies, identical copies of a therapeutic antibody produced in large numbers, that are authorized for the treatment of COVID-19. But in the ongoing effort to beat this terrible pandemic, there’s plenty of room for continued improvements in treating infections with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
With this in mind, I’m pleased to share progress in the development of a specially engineered therapeutic antibody that could be delivered through a nasal spray. Preclinical studies also suggest it may work even better than existing antibody treatments to fight COVID-19, especially now that new SARS-CoV-2 “variants of concern” have become increasingly prevalent.
These findings come from Zhiqiang An, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and Pei-Yong Shi, The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and their colleagues. The NIH-supported team recognized that the monoclonal antibodies currently in use all require time-consuming, intravenous infusion at high doses, which has limited their use. Furthermore, because they are delivered through the bloodstream, they aren’t able to reach directly the primary sites of viral infection in the nasal passages and lungs. With the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants, there’s also growing evidence that some of those therapeutic antibodies are becoming less effective in targeting the virus.
Antibodies come in different types. Immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies, for example, are most prevalent in the blood and have the potential to confer sustained immunity. Immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibodies are found in tears, mucus, and other bodily secretions where they protect the body’s moist, inner linings, or mucosal surfaces, of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Immunoglobulin M (IgM) antibodies are also important for protecting mucosal surfaces and are produced first when fighting an infection.
Though IgA and IgM antibodies differ structurally, both can be administered in an inhaled mist. However, monoclonal antibodies now used to treat COVID-19 are of the IgG type, which must be IV infused.
In the new study, the researchers stitched IgG fragments known for their ability to target SARS-CoV-2 together with those rapidly responding IgM antibodies. They found that this engineered IgM antibody, which they call IgM-14, is more than 230 times better than the IgG antibody that they started with in neutralizing SARS-CoV-2.
Importantly, IgM-14 also does a good job of neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern. These include the B.1.1.7 “U.K.” variant (now also called Alpha), the P.1 “Brazilian” variant (called Gamma), and the B.1.351 “South African” variant (called Beta). It also works against 21 other variants carrying alterations in the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the virus’ all-important spike protein. This protein, which allows SARS-CoV-2 to infect human cells, is a prime target for antibodies. Many of these alterations are expected to make the virus more resistant to monoclonal IgG antibodies that are now authorized by the FDA for emergency use.
But would it work to protect against coronavirus infection in a living animal? To find out, the researchers tried it in mice. They squirted a single dose of the IgM-14 antibody into the noses of mice either six hours before exposure to SARS-CoV-2 or six hours after infection with either the P.1 or B.1.351 variants.
In all cases, the antibody delivered in this way worked two days later to reduce dramatically the amount of SARS-CoV-2 in the lungs. That’s important because the amount of virus in the respiratory tracts of infected people is closely linked to severe illness and death due to COVID-19. If the new therapeutic antibody is proven safe and effective in people, it suggests it could become an important tool for reducing the severity of COVID-19, or perhaps even preventing infection altogether.
The researchers already have licensed this new antibody to a biotechnology partner called IGM Biosciences, Mountain View, CA, for further development and future testing in a clinical trial. If all goes well, the hope is that we’ll have a safe and effective nasal spray to serve as an extra line of defense in the fight against COVID-19.
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 , 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.