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Rogue Antibodies and Gene Mutations Explain Some Cases of Severe COVID-19

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Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a dying cell (blue) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

One of the many perplexing issues with COVID-19 is that it affects people so differently. That has researchers trying to explain why some folks bounce right back from the virus, or don’t even know they have it—while others become critically ill. Now, two NIH-funded studies suggest that one reason some otherwise healthy people become gravely ill may be previously unknown trouble spots in their immune systems, which hamper their ability to fight the virus.

According to the new findings in hundreds of racially diverse people with life-threatening COVID-19, a small percentage of people who suffer the most severe symptoms carry rare mutations in genes that disrupt their antiviral defenses. Another 10 percent with severe COVID-19 produce rogue “auto-antibodies,” which misguidedly disable a part of the immune system instead of attacking the virus.

Either way, the outcome is the same: the body has trouble fending off SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The biological reason is there’s not enough of an assortment of signaling proteins, called type I interferons, that are crucial to detecting dangerous viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and sounding the alarm to prevent serious illness.

The research was led by Jean-Laurent Casanova, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and The Rockefeller University, New York; and the Imagine Institute, Necker Hospital, Paris. Casanova and his team began enrolling people with COVID-19 last February, with a particular interest in young adults battling severe illness. They were curious whether inherent weaknesses in their immune systems might explain their surprising vulnerability to the virus despite being otherwise young and healthy. Based on earlier findings in other infectious illnesses, they were especially interested in a set of 13 genes involved in interferon-driven immunity.

In their first study, published in the journal Science, researchers compared this set of genes in 659 patients with life-threatening COVID-19 to the same genes in 534 people with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 [1]. It turned out that 23, or 3.5 percent, of people with severe COVID-19 indeed carried rare mutations in genes involved in producing antiviral interferons. Those unusual aberrations never turned up in people with milder disease. The researchers went on to show in lab studies that those genetic errors leave human cells more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

The discovery was certainly intriguing, but given the rarity of those mutations, it doesn’t explain most instances of severe COVID-19. Still, it did give Casanova’s team another idea. Perhaps some other people who suffer from severe COVID-19 lack interferons too, but for different reasons. Perhaps their bodies were producing rogue antibodies that were crippling their own antiviral defenses.

In their second study, also in Science, that’s exactly what researchers found in 101 of 987 (over 10 percent) patients from around the world with life-threatening COVID-19 [2]. In the bloodstreams of such individuals, they detected auto-antibodies against an assortment of interferon proteins. Those antibodies, which blocked the interferons’ antiviral activity, weren’t found in people with more mild cases of COVID-19.

Interestingly, the vast majority of patients with those harmful antibodies were men. The findings might help to explain the observation that men are at greater risk than women for developing severe COVID-19. The patients with auto-antibodies also were slightly older, with about half over the age of 65.

Many questions remain. For instance, it’s not yet clear what drives the production of those debilitating auto-antibodies. Might there be more mutations in antiviral defense-related genes that researchers have yet to discover? Is it possible that interferon treatment may help some people with severe COVID-19? Such treatment may be difficult in patients with auto-antibodies, although some clinical trials to explore this possibility already are underway.

The findings, if confirmed, have some potentially immediate implications. It’s possible that screening patients for the presence of damaging auto-antibodies might help to identify those at greater risk for progressing to severe disease. Treatments to remove those antibodies from the bloodstream or to boost antiviral defenses in other ways also may help. Ideally, it would be a good idea to make sure donated convalescent plasma now being tested in clinical trials as a treatment for severe COVID-19 doesn’t contain such disruptive auto-antibodies.

These new findings come from an international effort involving hundreds of scientists called the COVID Human Genetic Effort. Besides its ongoing efforts to understand severe COVID-19, Casanova says his team is also taking a look at the other side of the coin: how some people who’ve been exposed to severe COVID-19 in their own households manage to not get sick. A related international group called the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative is pursuing similar goals. Such insights will be invaluable as we continue to manage and treat COVID-19 patients in the future.


[1] Inborn errors of type I IFN immunity in patients with life-threatening COVID-19. Zhang Q, Bastard P, Liu Z, Le Pen J, Moncada-Velez M, Gorochov G, Béziat V, Jouanguy E, Sancho-Shimizu V, Rice CM, Abel L, Notarangelo LD, Cobat A, Su HC, Casanova JL et al. Science. 2020 Sep 24:eabd4570. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Auto-antibodies against type I IFNs in patients with life-threatening COVID-19. Bastard P, Rosen LB, Zhang Q, Michailidis E, Hoffmann HH, Gorochov G, Jouanguy E, Rice CM, Cobat A, Notarangelo LD, Abel L, Su HC, Casanova JL et al. Science. 2020 Sep 24:eabd4585. [Published online ahead of print.]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Interferons (Alpha, Beta) (NIH)

Interferons. Taylor MW. Viruses and Men: A History of Interactions. 2014 July 22. (Pubmed)

Video: Understanding the underlying genetics of COVID-19, Jean-Laurent Casanova (Youtube)

Jean-Laurent Casanova (The Rockefeller University, New York)

COVID Human Genetic Effort

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Immune T Cells May Offer Lasting Protection Against COVID-19

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Healthy human T Cell
Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (T cell) from a healthy donor’s immune system. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH

Much of the study on the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has focused on the production of antibodies. But, in fact, immune cells known as memory T cells also play an important role in the ability of our immune systems to protect us against many viral infections, including—it now appears—COVID-19.

An intriguing new study of these memory T cells suggests they might protect some people newly infected with SARS-CoV-2 by remembering past encounters with other human coronaviruses. This might potentially explain why some people seem to fend off the virus and may be less susceptible to becoming severely ill with COVID-19.

The findings, reported in the journal Nature, come from the lab of Antonio Bertoletti at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore [1]. Bertoletti is an expert in viral infections, particularly hepatitis B. But, like so many researchers around the world, his team has shifted their focus recently to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bertoletti’s team recognized that many factors could help to explain how a single virus can cause respiratory, circulatory, and other symptoms that vary widely in their nature and severity—as we’ve witnessed in this pandemic. One of those potential factors is prior immunity to other, closely related viruses.

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a large family of coronaviruses, six of which were previously known to infect humans. Four of them are responsible for the common cold. The other two are more dangerous: SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which ended in 2004; and MERS-CoV, the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

All six previously known coronaviruses spark production of both antibodies and memory T cells. In addition, studies of immunity to SARS-CoV-1 have shown that T cells stick around for many years longer than acquired antibodies. So, Bertoletti’s team set out to gain a better understanding of T cell immunity against the novel coronavirus.

The researchers gathered blood samples from 36 people who’d recently recovered from mild to severe COVID-19. They focused their attention on T cells (including CD4 helper and CD8 cytotoxic, both of which can function as memory T cells). They identified T cells that respond to the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid, which is a structural protein inside the virus. They also detected T cell responses to two non-structural proteins that SARS-CoV-2 needs to make additional copies of its genome and spread. The team found that all those recently recovered from COVID-19 produced T cells that recognize multiple parts of SARS-CoV-2.

Next, they looked at blood samples from 23 people who’d survived SARS. Their studies showed that those individuals still had lasting memory T cells today, 17 years after the outbreak. Those memory T cells, acquired in response to SARS-CoV-1, also recognized parts of SARS-CoV-2.

Finally, Bertoletti’s team looked for such T cells in blood samples from 37 healthy individuals with no history of either COVID-19 or SARS. To their surprise, more than half had T cells that recognize one or more of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins under study here. It’s still not clear if this acquired immunity stems from previous infection with coronaviruses that cause the common cold or perhaps from exposure to other as-yet unknown coronaviruses.

What’s clear from this study is our past experiences with coronavirus infections may have something important to tell us about COVID-19. Bertoletti’s team and others are pursuing this intriguing lead to see where it will lead—not only in explaining our varied responses to the virus, but also in designing new treatments and optimized vaccines.


[1] SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell immunity in cases of COVID-19 and SARS, and uninfected controls. Le Bert N, Tan AT, Kunasegaran K, et al. Nature. 2020 July 15. [published online ahead of print]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Overview of the Immune System (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIAID)

Bertoletti Lab (Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore)

Finding Antibodies that Neutralize SARS-CoV-2

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Neutralizing Antibodies
Caption: Model of three neutralizing antibodies (blue, purple and orange) bound to the spike protein, which allows SARS-CoV-2 attach to our cells. Credit: Christopher Barnes and Pamela Bjorkman, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

It’s now clear that nearly everyone who recovers from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) produces antibodies that specifically target SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the infection. Yet many critical questions remain. A major one is: just how well do those particular antibodies neutralize the virus to fight off the infection and help someone recover from COVID-19? Fortunately, most people get better—but should the typical antibody response take the credit?

A new NIH-funded study of nearly 150 people who recovered from COVID-19 offers some essential insight. The study, published in the journal Nature, shows that most people, in fact, do produce antibodies that can effectively neutralize SARS-CoV-2. But there is a catch: 99 percent of the study’s participants didn’t make enough neutralizing antibodies to mount an ideal immune response.

The good news is that when researchers looked at individuals who mounted a strong immune response, they were able to identify three antibodies (depicted above) that were extremely effective at neutralizing SARS-CoV-2. By mass-producing copies of these antibodies as so-called monoclonal antibodies, the researchers can now better evaluate their potential as treatments to help people who don’t make strongly neutralizing antibodies, or not enough of them.

These findings come from a team led by Michel Nussenzweig, Paul Bieniasz, and Charles Rice at The Rockefeller University, New York, and Pamela Bjorkman at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. In the Nussenzweig lab, the team has spent years searching for broadly neutralizing antibodies against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its great urgency, Nussenzweig and team shifted their focus recently to look for promising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

Antibodies are blood proteins that the immune system makes to neutralize viruses or other foreign invaders. The immune system doesn’t make just one antibody to thwart an invader; it makes a whole family of antibodies. But not all antibodies in that family are created equal. They can vary widely in where they latch onto a virus like SARS-CoV-2, and that determines how effective each will be at blocking it from infecting human cells. That’s one reason why people respond differently to infections such as COVID-19.

In early April, Nussenzweig’s team began analyzing samples from volunteer survivors who visited The Rockefeller Hospital to donate plasma, which contains the antibodies. The volunteers had all recovered from mild-to-severe cases of COVID-19, showing their first signs of illness about 40 days prior to their first plasma collection.

Not surprisingly, all volunteers had produced antibodies in response to the virus. To test the strength of the antibodies, the researchers used a special assay that shows how effective each one is at blocking the virus from infecting human cells in lab dishes.

Overall, most of the plasma samples—118 of 149—showed at best poor to modest neutralizing activity. In about one-third of individuals, their plasma samples had below detectable levels of neutralizing activity. It’s possible those individuals just resolved the infection quickly, before more potent antibodies were produced.

More intriguing to the researchers were the results from two individuals that showed an unusually strong ability to neutralize SARS-CoV-2. Among these two “elite responders” and four other individuals, the researchers identified 40 different antibodies that could neutralize SARS-CoV-2. But again, not all antibodies are created equal. Three neutralized the virus even when present at extremely low levels, and they now will be studied further as possible monoclonal antibodies.

The team determined that those strongly neutralizing antibodies bind three distinct sites on the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the coronavirus spike protein. This portion of the virus is important because it allows SARS-CoV-2 to bind and infect human cells. Importantly, when the researchers looked more closely at plasma samples with poor neutralizing ability, they found that they also contained those RBD-binding antibodies, just not in very large numbers.

These findings help not only to understand the immune response to COVID-19, they are also critical for vaccine design, revealing what a strong neutralizing antibody for SARS-CoV-2 should look like to help the immune system win. If a candidate vaccine can generate such strongly neutralizing antibodies, researchers will know that they are on the right track.

While this research showed that there’s a lot of variability in immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, it appears that most of us are inherently capable of producing antibodies to neutralize this devastating virus. That brings more reason for hope that the many vaccines now under study to elicit such neutralizing antibodies in sufficient numbers may afford us with much-needed immune protection.


[1] Convergent antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 in convalescent individuals. Robbiani DF, Gaebler C, Muecksch F, et al. Nature. 2020 Jun 18. [Published online ahead of print].


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV)

Nussenzweig Lab (The Rockefeller University, New York)

Bjorkman Lab (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Enlisting Monoclonal Antibodies in the Fight Against COVID-19

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B38 Antibody and SARS-CoV-2 wtih ACE2 Receptor
Caption: Antibody Binding to SARS-CoV-2. Structural illustration of B38 antibody (cyan, green) attached to receptor-binding domain of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (magenta). B38 blocks SARS-CoV-2 from binding to the ACE2 receptor (light pink) of a human cell, ACE2 is what the virus uses to infect cells. Credit: Y. Wu et al. Science, 2020

We now know that the immune system of nearly everyone who recovers from COVID-19 produces antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes this easily transmitted respiratory disease [1]. The presence of such antibodies has spurred hope that people exposed to SARS-CoV-2 may be protected, at least for a time, from getting COVID-19 again. But, in this post, I want to examine another potential use of antibodies: their promise for being developed as therapeutics for people who are sick with COVID-19.

In a recent paper in the journal Science, researchers used blood drawn from a COVID-19 survivor to identify a pair of previously unknown antibodies that specifically block SARS-CoV-2 from attaching to human cells [2]. Because each antibody locks onto a slightly different place on SARS-CoV-2, the vision is to use these antibodies in combination to block the virus from entering cells, thereby curbing COVID-19’s destructive spread throughout the lungs and other parts of the body.

The research team, led by Yan Wu, Capital Medical University, Beijing, first isolated the pair of antibodies in the laboratory, starting with white blood cells from the patient. They were then able to produce many identical copies of each antibody, referred to as monoclonal antibodies. Next, these monoclonal antibodies were simultaneously infused into a mouse model that had been infected with SARS-CoV-2. Just one infusion of this combination antibody therapy lowered the amount of viral genetic material in the animals’ lungs by as much as 30 percent compared to the amount in untreated animals.

Monoclonal antibodies are currently used to treat a variety of conditions, including asthma, cancer, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. One advantage of this class of therapeutics is that the timelines for their development, testing, and approval are typically shorter than those for drugs made of chemical compounds, called small molecules. Because of these and other factors, many experts think antibody-based therapies may offer one of the best near-term options for developing safe, effective treatments for COVID-19.

So, what exactly led up to this latest scientific achievement? The researchers started out with a snippet of SARS-CoV-2’s receptor binding domain (RBD), a vital part of the spike protein that protrudes from the virus’s surface and serves to dock the virus onto an ACE2 receptor on a human cell. In laboratory experiments, the researchers used the RBD snippet as “bait” to attract antibody-producing B cells in a blood sample obtained from the COVID-19 survivor. Altogether, the researchers identified four unique antibodies, but two, which they called B38 and H4, displayed a synergistic action in binding to the RBD that made them stand out for purposes of therapeutic development and further testing.

To complement their lab and animal experiments, the researchers used a particle accelerator called a synchrotron to map, at near-atomic resolution, the way in which the B38 antibody locks onto its viral target. This structural information helps to clarify the precise biochemistry of the complex interaction between SARS-CoV-2 and the antibody, providing a much-needed guide for the rational design of targeted drugs and vaccines. While more research is needed before this or other monoclonal antibody therapies can be used in humans suffering from COVID-19, the new work represents yet another example of how basic science is expanding fundamental knowledge to advance therapeutic discovery for a wide range of health concerns.

Meanwhile, there’s been other impressive recent progress towards the development of monoclonal antibody therapies for COVID-19. In work described in the journal Nature, an international research team started with a set of neutralizing antibodies previously identified in a blood sample from a person who’d recovered from a different coronavirus-caused disease, called severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), in 2003 [3]. Through laboratory and structural imaging studies, the researchers found that one of these antibodies, called S309, proved particularly effective at neutralizing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, because of its potent ability to target the spike protein that enables the virus to enter cells. The team, which includes NIH grantees David Veesler, University of Washington, Seattle, and Davide Corti, Humabs Biomed, a subsidiary of Vir Biotechnology, has indicated that S309 is already on an accelerated development path toward clinical trials.

In the U.S. and Europe, the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) partnership, which has brought together public and private sector COVID-19 therapeutic and vaccine efforts, is intensely pursuing the development and testing of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies for COVID-19 [4]. Stay tuned for more information about these potentially significant advances in the next few months.


[1] Humoral immune response and prolonged PCR positivity in a cohort of 1343 SARS-CoV 2 patients in the New York City region. Wajnberg A , Mansour M, Leven E, Bouvier NM, Patel G, Firpo A, Mendu R, Jhang J, Arinsburg S, Gitman M, Houldsworth J, Baine I, Simon V, Aberg J, Krammer F, Reich D, Cordon-Cardo C. medRxiv. Preprint Posted May 5, 2020.

[2] A noncompeting pair of human neutralizing antibodies block COVID-19 virus binding to its receptor ACE2. Wu Y. et al., Science. 13 May 2020 [Epub ahead of publication]

[3] Cross-neutralization of SARS-CoV-2 by a human monoclonal SARS-CoV antibody. Pinto D, Park YJ, Beltramello M, Veesler D, Cortil D, et al. Nature. 18 May 2020 [Epub ahead of print]

[4] Accelerating COVID-19 therapeutic interventions and vaccines (ACTIV): An unprecedented partnership for unprecedented times. Collins FS, Stoffels P. JAMA. 2020 May 18.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Monoclonal Antibodies (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV)

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

Working to Improve Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer

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Lung Cancer Immunotherapy
Credit: Xiaodong Zhu, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle

For those who track cancer statistics, this year started off on a positive note with word that lung cancer deaths continue to decline in the United States [1]. While there’s plenty of credit to go around for that encouraging news—and continued reduction in smoking is a big factor—some of this progress likely can be ascribed to a type of immunotherapy, called PD-1 inhibitors. This revolutionary approach has dramatically changed the treatment landscape for the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

PD-1 inhibitors, which have only been available for about five years, prime one component of a patient’s own immune system, called T cells, to seek and destroy malignant cells in the lungs. Unfortunately, however, only about 20 percent of people with NSCLC respond to PD-1 inhibitors. So, many researchers, including the team of A. McGarry Houghton, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, are working hard to extend the benefits of immunotherapy to more cancer patients.

The team’s latest paper, published in JCI Insight [2], reveals that one culprit behind a poor response to immunotherapy may be the immune system’s own first responders: neutrophils. Billions of neutrophils circulate throughout the body to track down abnormalities, such as harmful bacteria and malignant cells. They also contact other parts of the immune system, including T cells, if help is needed to eliminate the health threat.

In their study, the Houghton team, led by Julia Kargl, combined several lab techniques to take a rigorous, unbiased look at the immune cell profiles of tumor samples from dozens of NSCLC patients who received PD-1 inhibitors as a frontline treatment. The micrographs above show tumor samples from two of these patients.

In the image on the left, large swaths of T cells (light blue) have infiltrated the cancer cells (white specks). Interestingly, other immune cells, including neutrophils (magenta), are sparse.

In contrast, in the image on the right, T cells (light blue) are sparse. Instead, the tumor teems with other types of immune cells, including macrophages (red), two types of monocytes (yellow, green), and, most significantly, lots of neutrophils (magenta). These cells arise from myeloid progenitor cells in the bone marrow, while T cells arise from the marrow’s lymphoid progenitor cell.

Though the immune profiles of some tumor samples were tough to classify, the researchers found that most fit neatly into two subgroups: tumors showing active levels of T cell infiltration (like the image on the left) or those with large numbers of myeloid immune cells, especially neutrophils (like the image on the right). This dichotomy then served as a reliable predictor of treatment outcome. In the tumor samples with majority T cells, the PD-1 inhibitor worked to varying degrees. But in the tumor samples with predominantly neutrophil infiltration, the treatment failed.

Houghton’s team has previously found that many cancers, including NSCLC, actively recruit neutrophils, turning them into zombie-like helpers that falsely signal other immune cells, like T cells, to stay away. Based on this information, Houghton and colleagues used a mouse model of lung cancer to explore a possible way to increase the success rate of PD-1 immunotherapy.

In their mouse experiments, the researchers found that when PD-1 was combined with an existing drug that inhibits neutrophils, lung tumors infiltrated with neutrophils were converted into tumors infiltrated by T cells. The tumors treated with the combination treatment also expressed genes associated with an active immunotherapy response.

This year, January brought encouraging news about decreasing deaths from lung cancer. But with ongoing basic research, like this study, to tease out the mechanisms underlying the success and failure of immunotherapy, future months may bring even better news.


[1] Cancer statistics, 2020. Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020 Jan;70(1):7-30.

[2] Neutrophil content predicts lymphocyte depletion and anti-PD1 treatment failure in NSCLC. Kargl J, Zhu X, Zhang H, Yang GHY, Friesen TJ, Shipley M, Maeda DY, Zebala JA, McKay-Fleisch J, Meredith G, Mashadi-Hossein A, Baik C, Pierce RH, Redman MW, Thompson JC, Albelda SM, Bolouri H, Houghton AM. JCI Insight. 2019 Dec 19;4(24).

[3] Neutrophils dominate the immune cell composition in non-small cell lung cancer. Kargl J, Busch SE, Yang GH, Kim KH, Hanke ML, Metz HE, Hubbard JJ, Lee SM, Madtes DK, McIntosh MW, Houghton AM. Nat Commun. 2017 Feb 1;8:14381.


Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Spotlight on McGarry Houghton (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle)

Houghton Lab (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute

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