Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
You may have heard about the new variants of SARS-CoV-2—the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—that have appeared in other parts of the world and have now been detected in the United States. These variants, particularly one called B.1.351 that was first identified in South Africa, have raised growing concerns about the extent to which their mutations might help them evade current antibody treatments and highly effective vaccines.
While researchers take a closer look, it’s already possible in the laboratory to predict which mutations will help SARS-CoV-2 evade our therapies and vaccines, and even to prepare for the emergence of new mutations before they occur. In fact, an NIH-funded study, which originally appeared as a bioRxiv pre-print in November and was recently peer-reviewed and published in Science, has done exactly that. In the study, researchers mapped all possible mutations that would allow SARS-CoV-2 to resist treatment with three different monoclonal antibodies developed for treatment of COVID-19 .
The work, led by Jesse Bloom, Allison Greaney, and Tyler Starr, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle, focused on the receptor binding domain (RBD), a key region of the spike protein that studs SARS-CoV-2’s outer surface. The virus uses RBD to anchor itself to the ACE2 receptor of human cells before infecting them. That makes the RBD a prime target for the antibodies that our bodies generate to defend against the virus.
In the new study, researchers used a method called deep mutational scanning to find out which mutations positively or negatively influence the RBD from being able to bind to ACE2 and/or thwart antibodies from striking their target. Here’s how it works: Rather than waiting for new mutations to arise, the researchers created a library of RBD fragments, each of which contained a change in a single nucleotide “letter” that would alter the spike protein’s shape and/or function by swapping one amino acid for another. It turns out that there are more than 3,800 such possible mutations, and Bloom’s team managed to make all but a handful of those versions of the RBD fragment.
The team then used a standard laboratory approach to measure systematically how each of those single-letter typos altered RBD’s ability to bind ACE2 and infect human cells. They also measured how those changes affected three different therapeutic antibodies from recognizing and binding to the viral RBD. Those antibodies include two developed by Regeneron (REGN10933 and REGN10987), which have been granted emergency use authorization for treatment of COVID-19 together as a cocktail called REGN-COV2. They also looked at an antibody developed by Eli Lilly (LY-CoV016), which is now in phase 3 clinical trials for treating COVID-19.
Based on the data, the researchers created four mutational maps for SARS-CoV-2 to escape each of the three therapeutic antibodies, as well as for the REGN-COV2 cocktail. Their studies show most of the mutations that would allow SARS-CoV-2 to escape treatment differed between the two Regeneron antibodies. That’s encouraging because it indicates that the virus likely needs more than one mutation to become resistant to the REGN-COV2 cocktail. However, it appears there’s one spot where a single mutation could allow the virus to resist REGN-COV2 treatment.
The escape map for LY-CoV016 similarly showed a number of mutations that could allow the virus to escape. Importantly, while some of those changes might impair the virus’s ability to cause infection, most of them appeared to come at little to no cost to the virus to reproduce.
How do these laboratory data relate to the real world? To begin to explore this question, the researchers teamed up with Jonathan Li, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston. They looked at an immunocompromised patient who’d had COVID-19 for an unusually long time and who was treated with the Regeneron cocktail for 145 days, giving the virus time to replicate and acquire new mutations.
Viral genome data from the infected patient showed that these maps can indeed be used to predict likely paths of viral evolution. Over the course of the antibody treatment, SARS-CoV-2 showed changes in the frequency of five mutations that would change the makeup of the spike protein and its RBD. Based on the newly drawn escape maps, three of those five are expected to reduce the efficacy of REGN10933. One of the others is expected to limit binding by the other antibody, REGN10987.
The researchers also looked to data from all known circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants as of Jan. 11, 2021, for evidence of escape mutations. They found that a substantial number of mutations with potential to allow escape from antibody treatment already are present, particularly in parts of Europe and South Africa.
However, it’s important to note that these maps reflect just three important antibody treatments. Bloom says they’ll continue to produce maps for other promising therapeutic antibodies. They’ll also continue to explore where changes in the virus could allow for escape from the more diverse set of antibodies produced by our immune system after a COVID-19 infection or vaccination.
While it’s possible some COVID-19 vaccines may offer less protection against some of these new variants—and recent results have suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine may not provide much protection against the South African variant, there’s still enough protection in most other current vaccines to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death. And the best way to keep SARS-CoV-2 from finding new ways to escape our ongoing efforts to end this terrible pandemic is to double down on whatever we can do to prevent the virus from multiplying and spreading in the first place.
For now, emergence of these new variants should encourage all of us to take steps to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. That means following the three W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands often. It also means rolling up our sleeves to get vaccinated as soon as the opportunity arises.
 Prospective mapping of viral mutations that escape antibodies used to treat COVID-19.
Starr TN, Greaney AJ, Addetia A, Hannon WW, Choudhary MC, Dingens AS, Li JZ, Bloom JD.
Science. 2021 Jan 25:eabf9302.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Bloom Lab (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers around the world have shown willingness to put their own lives on the line for their patients and communities. Unfortunately, many have also contracted SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes of COVID-19, while caring for patients. That makes these frontline heroes helpful in another way in the fight against SARS-CoV-2: determining whether people who have recovered from COVID-19 can be reinfected by the virus.
New findings from a study of thousands of healthcare workers in England show that those who got COVID-19 and produced antibodies against the virus are highly unlikely to become infected again, at least over the several months that the study was conducted. In the rare instances in which someone with acquired immunity for SARS-CoV-2 subsequently tested positive for the virus within a six month period, they never showed any signs of being ill.
Some earlier studies have shown that people who survive a COVID-19 infection continue to produce protective antibodies against key parts of the virus for several months. But how long those antibodies last and whether they are enough to protect against reinfection have remained open questions.
In search of answers, researchers led by David Eyre, University of Oxford, England, looked to more than 12,000 healthcare workers at Oxford University Hospitals from April to November 2020. At the start of the study, 11,052 of them tested negative for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, suggesting they hadn’t had COVID-19. But the other 1,246 tested positive for antibodies, evidence that they’d already been infected.
After this initial testing, all participants received antibody tests once every two months and diagnostic tests for an active COVID-19 infection at least every other week. What the researchers discovered was rather interesting. Eighty-nine of the 11,052 healthcare workers who tested negative at the outset later got a symptomatic COVID-19 infection. Another 76 individuals who originally tested negative for antibodies tested positive for COVID-19, despite having no symptoms.
Here’s the good news: Just three of these more than 1400 antibody-positive individuals subsequently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. What’s more, not one of them had any symptoms of COVID-19.
The findings, which were posted as a pre-print on medRxiv, suggest that acquired immunity from an initial COVID-19 infection offers protection against reinfection for six months or maybe longer. Questions remain about whether the acquired immunity is due to the observed antibodies alone or their interplay with other immune cells. It will be important to continue to follow these healthcare workers even longer, to learn just how long their immune protection might last.
Meanwhile, more than 15 million people in the United States have now tested positive for COVID-19, leading to more than 285,000 deaths. Last week, the U.S. reported for the first time more than 200,000 new infections, with hospitalizations and deaths also on the rise.
While the new findings on reinfection come as good news to be sure, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the 328 million Americans still remain susceptible to this life-threatening virus. So, throughout this holiday season and beyond—as we eagerly await the approval and widespread distribution of vaccines—we must all continue to do absolutely everything we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities from COVID-19.
 Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 are associated with protection against reinfection. Lumley, S.F. et al. MedRxiv. 19 November 2020.
Coronavirus (COVID) (NIH)
Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)
David Eyre (University of Oxford, England)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Credit: Adapted from Jones et al. ChemRxiv.org
Over the past few years, there’s been a great deal of excitement about the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for mapping the structures of large biological molecules like proteins and nucleic acids. Now comes word of another absolutely incredible use of cryo-EM: determining with great ease and exquisite precision the structure of the smaller organic chemical compounds, or “small molecules,” that play such key roles in biological exploration and drug development.
The new advance involves a cryo-EM technique called microcrystal-electron diffraction (MicroED). As detailed in a preprint on ChemRxiv.org  and the journal Angewandte Chemie , MicroED has enabled researchers to take the powdered form of commercially available small molecules and generate high-resolution data on their chemical structures in less than a half-hour—dramatically faster than with traditional methods!
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Hope your 2018 is off to a great start.
Over the holidays, the journal Science published its annual, end-of-the-year list of research breakthroughs, from anthropology to zoology. I always look forward to seeing the list and reflecting on some of the stunning advances reported in the past 12 months. Last year was no exception. Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year, as chosen by its editors, was in the field of astrophysics. Scientists were able to witness the effects of the collision of two neutron stars—large stars with collapsed inner cores—smacking into each other 130 million light years away. How cool is that!
Numbered prominently among the nine other breakthroughs were five from biomedicine: gene therapy, gene editing, cancer immunotherapy, cryo-EM, and biology preprints. All involved varying degrees of NIH support, and all drew great interest from readers. In fact, three of the top four vote-getters in the “People’s Choice” category came from biomedicine. That includes the People’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year: gene therapy success. And so, in what has become a Director’s Blog tradition, I’ll kick off our new year of posts by taking a closer look at these biomedical breakthroughs—starting with the little girl in the collage above, and moving clockwise around the images: