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Genome Data Help to Track COVID-19 Superspreading Event

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Boston skyline
Credit: iStock/Chaay_Tee

When it comes to COVID-19, anyone, even without symptoms, can be a “superspreader” capable of unknowingly infecting a large number of people and causing a community outbreak. That’s why it is so important right now to wear masks when out in public and avoid large gatherings, especially those held indoors, where a superspreader can readily infect others with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Driving home this point is a new NIH-funded study on the effects of just one superspreader event in the Boston area: an international biotech conference held in February, before the public health risks of COVID-19 had been fully realized [1]. Almost a hundred people were infected. But it didn’t end there.

In the study, the researchers sequenced close to 800 viral genomes, including cases from across the first wave of the epidemic in the Boston area. Using the fact that the viral genome changes in very subtle ways over time, they found that SARS-CoV-2 was actually introduced independently to the region more than 80 times, primarily from Europe and other parts of the United States. But the data also suggest that a single superspreading event at the biotech conference led to the infection of almost 20,000 people in the area, not to mention additional COVID-19 cases in other states and around the world.

The findings, posted on medRxiv as a pre-print, come from Bronwyn MacInnis and Pardis Sabeti at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA, and their many close colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. The initial focus of MacInnis, Sabeti, and their Broad colleagues has been on developing genome data and tools for surveillance of viruses and other infectious diseases in and viral outbreaks in West Africa, including Lassa fever and Ebola virus disease.

Closer to home, they’d expected to focus their attention on West Nile virus and tick-borne diseases. But, when the COVID-19 outbreak erupted, they were ready to pivot quickly to assist several Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state labs in the northeastern United States to use genomic tools to investigate local outbreaks.

It’s been clear from the beginning of the pandemic that COVID-19 cases often arise in clusters, linked to gatherings in places such as cruise ships, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. But the Broad Institute team and their colleagues realized, it’s difficult to see how extensively a virus spreads from such places into the wider community based on case counts alone.

Contact tracing certainly helps to track community spread of the virus. This surveillance strategy depends on quick, efficient identification of an infected individual. It follows up with the identification of all who’ve recently been in close contact with that person, allowing the contacts to self-quarantine and break the chain of transmission.

But contact tracing has its limitations. It’s not always possible to identify all the people that an infected person has been in recent contact with. Genome data, however, is particularly useful after the fact for connecting those dots to get a big picture view of viral transmission.

Here’s how it works: as SARS-CoV-2 spreads, the virus sometimes picks up a new mutation. Those tiny spelling changes in the viral genome usually have no effect on how the virus causes disease, but they do serve as distinct genomic fingerprints. Using those fingerprints to guide the way, researchers can trace the path the virus took through a community and beyond, identifying connections among cases that would be untrackable otherwise.

With this in mind, MacInnis and Sabeti’s team set out to help Boston’s public health officials understand just how the epidemic escalated so quickly in the Boston area, and just how much the February conference had contributed to community transmission of the virus. They also investigated other case clusters in the area, including within a skilled nursing facility, homeless shelters, and at Massachusetts General Hospital itself, to understand the spread of COVID-19 in these settings.

Based on contact tracing, officials had already connected approximately 90 cases of COVID-19 to the biotech conference, 28 of which were included in the original 772 viral genomes in this dataset. Based on the distinct genomic fingerprint carried by the 28 genomes, the researchers went on to discover that more than one-third of Boston area cases without any known link to the conference could indeed be traced back to the event.

When the researchers considered this proportion to the number of cases recorded in the region during the study, they extrapolated that the superspreader event led to nearly 20,000 cases in the Boston area. In contrast, the genome data show cases linked to another superspreader event that took place within a skilled nursing facility, while devastating to the residents, had much less of an impact on the surrounding community.

The analysis also uncovered some unexpected connections. The dataset showed that SARS-CoV-2 was brought to clients and staff at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program at least seven times. Remarkably, two of those introductions also traced back to the biotech conference. Researchers also found infections in Chelsea, Revere, and Everett, which were some of the hardest hit communities in the Boston area, that were connected to the original superspreading event.

There was some reassuring news about how precautions in hospitals are working. The researchers examined cases that were diagnosed among patients at Massachusetts General Hospital, raising concerns that the virus might have spread from one patient to another within the hospital. But the genome data show that those cases, in fact, weren’t part of the same transmission chain. They may have contracted the virus before they were hospitalized. Or it’s possible that staff may have inadvertently brought the virus into the hospital. But there was no patient-to-patient transmission.

Massachusetts is one of the states in which the COVID-19 pandemic had a particularly severe early impact. As such, these results present broadly applicable lessons for other states and urban areas about how the virus spreads. The findings highlight the value of genomic surveillance, along with standard contact tracing, for better understanding of viral transmission in our communities and improved prevention of future outbreaks.

Reference:

[1] Phylogenetic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 in the Boston area highlights the role of recurrent importation and superspreading events. Lemieux J. et al. medRxiv. August 25, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Bronwyn MacInnis (Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Cambridge, MA)

Sabeti Lab (Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


Capturing Viral Shedding in Action

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Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Hamilton, MT

You’ve probably seen some amazing high-resolution images of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, on television and the web. What you might not know is that many of these images, including the ones shown here, were produced at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), a part of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that’s located in the small Montana town of Hamilton.

The head of RML’s Electron Microscopy Unit, Elizabeth Fischer, was the researcher who took this portrait of SARS-CoV-2. For more than 25 years, Fischer has snapped stunning images of dangerous viruses and microbes, including some remarkable shots of the deadly Ebola virus. She also took some of the first pictures of the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels and continues to circulate at low levels in people.

The NIAID facility uses a variety of microscopy techniques, including state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). But the eye-catching image you see here was taken with a classic scanning electron microscope (SEM).

SEM enables visualization of particles, including viruses, that are too small to be seen with traditional light microscopy. It does so by focusing electrons, instead of light, into a beam that scans the surface of a sample that’s first been dehydrated, chemically preserved, and then coated with a thin layer of metal. As electrons bounce off the sample’s surface, microscopists such as Fischer are able to capture its precise topology. The result is a gray-scale micrograph like the one you see above on the left. To make the image easier to interpret, Fischer hands the originals off to RML’s Visual Medical Arts Department, which uses colorization to make key features pop like they do in the image on the right.

So, what exactly are you seeing in this image? The orange-brown folds and protrusions are part of the surface of a single cell that’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2. This particular cell comes from a commonly studied primate kidney epithelial cell line. The small, blue spheres emerging from the cell surface are SARS-CoV-2 particles.

This picture is quite literally a snapshot of viral shedding, a process in which viral particles are released from a dying cell. This image gives us a window into how devastatingly effective SARS-CoV-2 appears to be at co-opting a host’s cellular machinery: just one infected cell is capable of releasing thousands of new virus particles that can, in turn, be transmitted to others.

While capturing a fixed sample on the microscope is fairly straightforward for a pro like Fischer, developing a sample like this one involves plenty of behind-the-scenes trial and error by NIAID investigators. As you might imagine, to see the moment that viruses emerge from an infected cell, you have to get the timing just right.

By capturing many shots of the coronavirus using the arsenal of microscopes available at RML and elsewhere, researchers are learning more every day about how SARS-CoV-2 enters a cell, moves inside it, and then emerges to infect other cells. In addition to advancing scientific knowledge, Fischer notes that images like these also hold the remarkable power to make an invisible enemy visible to the world at large.

Making SARS-CoV-2 tangible helps to demystify the challenges that all of us now face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope is it will encourage each and every one of us to do our part to fight it, whether that means digging into the research, working on the front lines, or staying at home to prevent transmission and flatten the curve. And, if you could use some additional inspiration, don’t miss the NIAID’s image gallery on Flickr, which includes some of Fischer’s finest work.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rocky Mountain Laboratories (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Elizabeth Fischer (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Celebrating 2019 Biomedical Breakthroughs

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Science 2019 Biomedical Breakthroughs and a Breakdown

Happy New Year! As we say goodbye to the Teens, let’s take a look back at 2019 and some of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that closed out this remarkable decade.

Each December, the reporters and editors at the journal Science select their breakthrough of the year, and the choice for 2019 is nothing less than spectacular: An international network of radio astronomers published the first image of a black hole, the long-theorized cosmic singularity where gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape [1]. This one resides in a galaxy 53 million light-years from Earth! (A light-year equals about 6 trillion miles.)

Though the competition was certainly stiff in 2019, the biomedical sciences were well represented among Science’s “runner-up” breakthroughs. They include three breakthroughs that have received NIH support. Let’s take a look at them:

In a first, drug treats most cases of cystic fibrosis: Last October, two international research teams reported the results from phase 3 clinical trials of the triple drug therapy Trikafta to treat cystic fibrosis (CF). Their data showed Trikafta effectively compensates for the effects of a mutation carried by about 90 percent of people born with CF. Upon reviewing these impressive data, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Trikafta, developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

The approval of Trikafta was a wonderful day for me personally, having co-led the team that isolated the CF gene 30 years ago. A few years later, I wrote a song called “Dare to Dream” imagining that wonderful day when “the story of CF is history.” Though we’ve still got more work to do, we’re getting a lot closer to making that dream come true. Indeed, with the approval of Trikafta, most people with CF have for the first time ever a real chance at managing this genetic disease as a chronic condition over the course of their lives. That’s a tremendous accomplishment considering that few with CF lived beyond their teens as recently as the 1980s.

Such progress has been made possible by decades of work involving a vast number of researchers, many funded by NIH, as well as by more than two decades of visionary and collaborative efforts between the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Aurora Biosciences (now, Vertex) that built upon that fundamental knowledge of the responsible gene and its protein product. Not only did this innovative approach serve to accelerate the development of therapies for CF, it established a model that may inform efforts to develop therapies for other rare genetic diseases.

Hope for Ebola patients, at last: It was just six years ago that news of a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa sounded a global health emergency of the highest order. Ebola virus disease was then recognized as an untreatable, rapidly fatal illness for the majority of those who contracted it. Though international control efforts ultimately contained the spread of the virus in West Africa within about two years, over 28,600 cases had been confirmed leading to more than 11,000 deaths—marking the largest known Ebola outbreak in human history. Most recently, another major outbreak continues to wreak havoc in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violent civil unrest is greatly challenging public health control efforts.

As troubling as this news remains, 2019 brought a needed breakthrough for the millions of people living in areas susceptible to Ebola outbreaks. A randomized clinical trial in the DRC evaluated four different drugs for treating acutely infected individuals, including an antibody against the virus called mAb114, and a cocktail of anti-Ebola antibodies referred to as REGN-EB3. The trial’s preliminary data showed that about 70 percent of the patients who received either mAb114 or the REGN-EB3 antibody cocktail survived, compared with about half of those given either of the other two medicines.

So compelling were these preliminary results that the trial, co-sponsored by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the DRC’s National Institute for Biomedical Research, was halted last August. The results were also promptly made public to help save lives and stem the latest outbreak. All Ebola patients in the DRC treatment centers now are treated with one or the other of these two options. The trial results were recently published.

The NIH-developed mAb114 antibody and the REGN-EB3 cocktail are the first therapeutics to be shown in a scientifically rigorous study to be effective at treating Ebola. This work also demonstrates that ethically sound clinical research can be conducted under difficult conditions in the midst of a disease outbreak. In fact, the halted study was named Pamoja Tulinde Maisha (PALM), which means “together save lives” in Kiswahili.

To top off the life-saving progress in 2019, the FDA just approved the first vaccine for Ebola. Called Ervebo (earlier rVSV-ZEBOV), this single-dose injectable vaccine is a non-infectious version of an animal virus that has been genetically engineered to carry a segment of a gene from the Zaire species of the Ebola virus—the virus responsible for the current DRC outbreak and the West Africa outbreak. Because the vaccine does not contain the whole Zaire virus, it can’t cause Ebola. Results from a large study in Guinea conducted by the WHO indicated that the vaccine offered substantial protection against Ebola virus disease. Ervebo, produced by Merck, has already been given to over 259,000 individuals as part of the response to the DRC outbreak. The NIH has supported numerous clinical trials of the vaccine, including an ongoing study in West Africa.

Microbes combat malnourishment: Researchers discovered a few years ago that abnormal microbial communities, or microbiomes, in the intestine appear to contribute to childhood malnutrition. An NIH-supported research team followed up on this lead with a study of kids in Bangladesh, and it published last July its groundbreaking finding: that foods formulated to repair the “gut microbiome” helped malnourished kids rebuild their health. The researchers were able to identify a network of 15 bacterial species that consistently interact in the gut microbiomes of Bangladeshi children. In this month-long study, this bacterial network helped the researchers characterize a child’s microbiome and/or its relative state of repair.

But a month isn’t long enough to determine how the new foods would help children grow and recover. The researchers are conducting a similar study that is much longer and larger. Globally, malnutrition affects an estimated 238 million children under the age 5, stunting their normal growth, compromising their health, and limiting their mental development. The hope is that these new foods and others adapted for use around the world soon will help many more kids grow up to be healthy adults.

Measles Resurgent: The staff at Science also listed their less-encouraging 2019 Breakdowns of the Year, and unfortunately the biomedical sciences made the cut with the return of measles in the U.S. Prior to 1963, when the measles vaccine was developed, 3 to 4 million Americans were sickened by measles each year. Each year about 500 children would die from measles, and many more would suffer lifelong complications. As more people were vaccinated, the incidence of measles plummeted. By the year 2000, the disease was even declared eliminated from the U.S.

But, as more parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children, driven by the now debunked claim that vaccines are connected to autism, measles has made a very preventable comeback. Last October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an estimated 1,250 measles cases in the United States at that point in 2019, surpassing the total number of cases reported annually in each of the past 25 years.

The good news is those numbers can be reduced if more people get the vaccine, which has been shown repeatedly in many large and rigorous studies to be safe and effective. The CDC recommends that children should receive their first dose by 12 to 15 months of age and a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6. Older people who’ve been vaccinated or have had the measles previously should consider being re-vaccinated, especially if they live in places with low vaccination rates or will be traveling to countries where measles are endemic.

Despite this public health breakdown, 2019 closed out a memorable decade of scientific discovery. The Twenties will build on discoveries made during the Teens and bring us even closer to an era of precision medicine to improve the lives of millions of Americans. So, onward to 2020—and happy New Year!

Reference:

[1] 2019 Breakthrough of the Year. Science, December 19, 2019.

NIH Support: These breakthroughs represent the culmination of years of research involving many investigators and the support of multiple NIH institutes.


Singing with Pardis Sabeti and MIT Logarhythms

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This is a blast from the not-too-distant past. I delivered the Compton Lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, in October 2014. At the end of the lecture, I was joined on stage by Pardis Sabeti (center) and the MIT Logarhythms (right). We joined together to sing Sabeti’s inspiring song, “One Truth,” about the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa. Credit: MIT


A Scientist Whose Music Gives Comfort

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Over the past few years, my blog has highlighted a wide range of Creative Minds from across biomedical research. But creative minds come in many forms, and, for a change of pace, I’d like to kick back this August and highlight some talented scientists who are also doing amazing things in the arts, from abstract painting to salsa dancing to rock’n’roll.

My first post introduces you to Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, Cambridge, and one of Time Magazine’s 2014 People of the Year for her work to contain the last major Ebola outbreak in West Africa. When she’s not in the lab studying viruses, Sabeti is the hard-driving voice of the indie rock band Thousand Days that has been rocking Boston for more than a decade.


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