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 . 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 . 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 . 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 , including the United States, where it now accounts for more than 1 percent of new cases .
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 . 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 . 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.
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.
There’s been a great deal of discussion about whether people who recover from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), have neutralizing antibodies in their bloodstream to guard against another infection. Lots of interesting data continue to emerge, including a recent preprint from researchers at Sherman Abrams Laboratory, Brooklyn, NY . They tested 11,092 people for antibodies in May at a local urgent care facility and found nearly half had long-lasting IgG antibodies, a sign of exposure to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19. The researchers also found a direct correlation between the severity of a person’s symptoms and their levels of IgG antibodies.
This study and others remind us of just how essential antibody tests will be going forward to learn more about this challenging pandemic. These assays must have high sensitivity and specificity, meaning there would be few false negatives and false positives, to tell us more about a person’s exposure to SARS-CoV-2. While there are some good tests out there, not all are equally reliable.
Recently, I had a chance to discuss COVID-19 antibody tests, also called serology tests, with Dr. Norman “Ned” Sharpless, Director of NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). Among his many talents, Dr. Sharpless is an expert on antibody testing for COVID-19. You might wonder how NCI got involved in COVID-19 testing. Well, you’re going to find out. Our conversation took place while videoconferencing, with him connecting from North Carolina and me linking in from my home in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:
Collins: Ned, thanks for joining me. Maybe we should start with the basics. What are antibodies anyway?
Sharpless: Antibodies are proteins that your body makes as part of the learned immune system. It’s the immunity that responds to a bacterium or a virus. In general, if you draw someone’s blood after an infection and test it for the presence of these antibodies, you can often know whether they’ve been infected. Antibodies can hang around for quite a while. How long exactly is a topic of great interest, especially in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we think most people infected with coronavirus will make antibodies at a reasonably high level, or titer, in their peripheral blood within a couple of weeks of the infection.
Collins: What do antibodies tell us about exposure to a virus?
Sharpless: A lot of people with coronavirus are infected without ever knowing it. You can use these antibody assays to try and tell how many people in an area have been infected, that is, you can do a so-called seroprevalence survey.
You could also potentially use these antibody assays to predict someone’s resistance to future infection. If you cleared the infection and established immunity to it, you might be resistant to future infection. That might be very useful information. Maybe you could make a decision about how to go out in the community. So, that part is of intense interest as well, although less scientifically sound at the moment.
Collins: I have a 3D-printed model of SARS-CoV-2 on my desk. It’s sort of a spherical virus that has spike proteins on its surface. Do the antibodies interact with the virus in some specific ways?
Sharpless: Yes, antibodies are shaped like the letter Y. They have two binding domains at the head of each Y that will recognize something about the virus. We find antibodies in the peripheral blood that recognize either the virus nucleocapsid, which is the structural protein on the inside; or the spikes, which stick out and give coronavirus its name. We know now that about 99 percent of people who get infected with the virus will develop antibodies eventually. Most of those antibodies that you can detect to the spike proteins will be neutralizing, which means they can kill the virus in a laboratory experiment. We know from other viruses that, generally, having neutralizing antibodies is a promising sign if you want to be immune to that virus in the future.
Collins: Are COVID-19 antibodies protective? Are there reports of people who’ve gotten better, but then were re-exposed and got sick again?
Sharpless: It’s controversial. People can shed the virus’s nucleic acid [genetic material], for weeks or even more than a month after they get better. So, if they have another nucleic acid test it could be positive, even though they feel better. Often, those people aren’t making a lot of live virus, so it may be that they never stopped shedding the virus. Or it may be that they got re-infected. It’s hard to understand what that means exactly. If you think about how many people worldwide have had COVID-19, the number of legitimate possible reinfection cases is in the order of a handful. So, it’s a pretty rare event, if it happens at all.
Collins: For somebody who does have the antibodies, who apparently was previously infected, do they need to stop worrying about getting exposed? Can they can do whatever they want and stop worrying about distancing and wearing masks?
Sharpless: No, not yet. To use antibodies to predict who’s likely to be immune, you’ve got to know two things.
First: can the tests actually measure antibodies reliably? I think there are assays available to the public that are sufficiently good for asking this question, with an important caveat. If you’re trying to detect something that’s really rare in a population, then any test is going to have limitations. But if you’re trying to detect something that’s more common, as the virus was during the recent outbreak in Manhattan, I think the tests are up to the task.
Second: does the appearance of an antibody in the peripheral blood mean that you’re actually immune or you’re just less likely to get the virus? We don’t know the answer to that yet.
Collins: Let’s be optimistic, because it sounds like there’s some evidence to support the idea that people who develop these antibodies are protected against infection. It also sounds like the tests, at least some of them, are pretty good. But if there is protection, how long would you expect it to last? Is this one of those things where you’re all set for life? Or is this going to be something where somebody’s had it and might get it again two or three years from now, because the immunity faded away?
Sharpless: Since we have no direct experience with this virus over time, it’s hard to answer. The potential for this cell-based humoral immunity to last for a while is there. For some viruses, you have a long-lasting antibody protection after infection; for other viruses, not so much.
So that’s the unknown thing. Is immunity going to last for a while? Of course, if one were to bring up the topic of vaccines, that’s very important to know, because you would want to know how often one would have to give that vaccine, even under optimal circumstances.
Collins: Yes, our conversation about immunity is really relevant to the vaccines we’re trying to develop right now. Will these vaccines be protective for long periods of time? We sure hope so, but we’ve got to look carefully at the issue. Let’s come back, though, to the actual performance of the tests. The NCI has been right in the middle of trying to do this kind of validation. How did that happen, and how did that experience go?
Sharpless: Yes, I think one might ask: why is the National Cancer Institute testing antibody kits for the FDA? It is unusual, but certainly not unheard of, for NCI to take up problems like this during a time of a national emergency. During the HIV era, NCI scientists, along with others, identified the virus and did one of the first successful compound screens to find the drug AZT, one of the first effective anti-HIV therapies.
NCI’s Frederick National Lab also has a really good serology lab that had been predominantly working on human papillomavirus (HPV). When the need arose for serologic testing a few months ago, we pivoted that lab to a coronavirus serology lab. It took us a little while, but eventually we rounded up everything you needed to create positive and negative reference panels for antibody testing.
At that time, the FDA had about 200 manufacturers making serology tests that hoped for approval to sell. The FDA wanted some performance testing of those assays by a dispassionate third party. The Frederick National Lab seemed like the ideal place, and the manufacturers started sending us kits. I think we’ve probably tested on the order of 20 so far. We give those data back to the FDA for regulatory decision making. They’re putting all the data online.
Collins: How did it look? Are these all good tests or were there some clunkers?
Sharpless: There were some clunkers. But we were pleased to see that some of the tests appear to be really good, both in our hands and those of other groups, and have been used in thousands of patients.
There are a few tests that have sensitivities that are pretty high and specificities well over 99 percent. The Roche assay has a 99.8 percent specificity claimed on thousands of patients, and for the Mt. Sinai assay developed and tested by our academic collaborators in a panel of maybe 4,000 patients, they’re not sure they’ve ever had a false positive. So, there are some assays out there that are good.
Collins: There’s been talk about how there will soon be monoclonal antibodies directed against SARS-CoV-2. How are those derived?
Sharpless: They’re picked, generally, for appearing to have neutralizing activity. When a person makes antibodies, they don’t make one antibody to a pathogen. They make a whole family of them. And those can be individually isolated, so you can know which antibodies made by a convalescent individual really have virus-neutralizing capacity. That portion of the antibody that recognizes the virus can be engineered into a manufacturing platform to make monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal means one kind of antibody. That approach has worked for other infectious diseases and is an interesting idea here too.
Collins: I can say a bit about that, because we are engaged in a partnership with industry and FDA called Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV). One of the hottest ideas right now is monoclonal antibodies, and we’re in the process of devising a master protocol, one for outpatients and one for inpatients.
Janet Woodcock of Operation Warp Speed tells me 21 companies are developing monoclonal antibodies. While doing these trials, we’d love to do comparisons, which is why it’s good to have an organization like ACTIV to bring everybody together, making sure you’re using the same endpoints and the same laboratory measures. I think that, maybe even by late summer, we might have some results. For people who are looking at what’s the next most-hopeful therapeutic option for people who are really sick with COVID-19, so far we have remdesivir. It helps, but it’s not a home run. Maybe monoclonal antibodies will be the next thing that really gives a big boost in survival. That would be the hope.
Ned, let me ask you one final question about herd, or group, immunity. One hears a bit about that in terms of how we are all going to get past this COVID-19 pandemic. What’s that all about?
Sharpless: Herd immunity is when a significant portion of the population is immune to a pathogen, then that pathogen will die out in the population. There just aren’t enough susceptible people left to infect. What the threshold is for herd immunity depends on how infectious the virus is. For a highly infectious virus, like measles, maybe up to 90 percent of the population must be immune to get herd immunity. Whereas for other less-infectious viruses, it may only be 50 percent of the population that needs to be immune to get herd immunity. It’s a theoretical thing that makes some assumptions, such as that everybody’s health status is the same and the population mixes perfectly every day. Neither of those are true.
How well that actual predictive number will work for coronavirus is unknown. The other thing that’s interesting is a lot of that work has been based on vaccines, such as what percentage do you have to vaccinate to get herd immunity? But if you get to herd immunity by having people get infected, so-called natural herd immunity, that may be different. You would imagine the most susceptible people get infected soonest, and so the heterogeneity of the population might change the threshold calculation.
The short answer is nobody wants to find out. No one wants to get to herd immunity for COVID-19 through natural herd immunity. The way you’d like to get there is with a vaccine that you then could apply to a large portion of the population, and have them acquire immunity in a more safe and controlled manner. Should we have an efficacious vaccine, this question will loom large: how many people do we need to vaccinate to really try and protect vulnerable populations?
Collins: That’s going to be a really critical question for the coming months, as the first large-scale vaccine trials get underway in July, and we start to see how they work and how successful and safe they are. But I’m also worried seeing some reports that 1 out of 5 Americans say they wouldn’t take a vaccine. It would be truly a tragedy if we have a safe and effective vaccine, but we don’t get enough uptake to achieve herd immunity. So, we’ve got some work to do on all fronts, that’s for sure.
Ned, I want to thank you for sharing all this information about antibodies and serologies and other things, as well as thank you for your hard work with all your amazing NCI colleagues.
Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
I was born in 1950 and was home-schooled until the 6th grade. Thus, I missed exposure to several childhood illnesses that affected most of my generation. I never gave it much thought until, as a medical resident in North Carolina in 1979, I came down with a potentially life-threatening febrile illness that required hospitalization. Only after four days of 105 degree fever did a rash appear, and the diagnosis was made: measles. That was the sickest I have ever been. It turned out that one of my daughter’s school friends had developed measles in a small outbreak of unvaccinated kids in Chapel Hill, and I had been exposed to her. I was born too early to have been vaccinated.
But for most people born in the United States after the 1960s, they have never had to experience the high fever and rash of the measles or the coughing fits of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. That’s because these extremely contagious and potentially life-threatening diseases have been controlled with the use of highly effective vaccines and strong vaccination programs. And yet, the number of Americans sickened with measles and pertussis each year has recently crept back up.
Now, an NIH-funded report confirms that many of the recent outbreaks of these vaccine-preventable diseases have been fueled by refusal by some parents to have their children vaccinated . The findings, published recently in JAMA, come as an important reminder that successful eradication of infectious diseases depends not only on the availability of safe and effective vaccines, but also on effective communication about the vaccines and the diseases they prevent.