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Tracking the Evolution of a ‘Variant of Concern’ in Brazil

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P.1 Variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the center of standard SARS-CoV-2. Arrows move out from the variant

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [4], including the United States, where it now accounts for more than 1 percent of new cases [5].

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 [6]. 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 [6]. 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.

References:

[1] Three-quarters attack rate of SARS-CoV-2 in the Brazilian Amazon during a largely unmitigated epidemic. Buss, L. F., C. A. Prete, Jr., C. M. M. Abrahim, A. C. Dye, V. H. Nascimento, N. R. Faria and E. C. Sabino et al. (2021). Science 371(6526): 288-292.

[2] Resurgence of COVID-19 in Manaus, Brazil, despite high seroprevalence. Sabino EC, Buss LF, Carvalho MPS, Prete Jr CCA, Crispim MAE, Fraiji NA, Pereira RHM, Paraga KV, Peixoto PS, Kraemer MUG, Oikawa MJ, Salomon T, Cucunuba ZM, Castro MC, Santos AAAS, Nascimento VH, Pereira HS, Ferguson NM, Pybus OG, Kucharski A, Busch MP, Dye C, Faria NR Lancet. 2021 Feb 6;397(10273):452-455.

[3] Genomics and epidemiology of the P.1 SARS-CoV-2 lineage in Manaus, Brazil. Faria NR, Mellan TA, Whittaker C, Claro IM, Fraiji NA, Carvalho MDPSS, Pybus OG, Flaxman S, Bhatt S, Sabino EC et al. Science. 2021 Apr 14:eabh2644.

[4] GRINCH Global Report Investigating novel coronavirus haplotypes. PANGO Lineages.

[5] COVID Data Tracker. Variant Proportions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[6] Antibody evasion by the P.1 strain of SARS-CoV-2. Dejnirattisai W, Zhou D, Supasa P, Liu C, Mongkolsapaya J, Ren J, Stuart DI, Screaton GR, et al. Cell. 2021 Mar 30:S0092-8674(21)00428-1.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Brazil-UK Centre for Arbovirus Discovery, Diagnosis, Genomics and Epidemiology (CADDE)

Nuno Faria (Imperial College, London, U.K.)

Samir Bhatt (Imperial College)

Ester Cerdeira Sabino (Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Following COVID-19 Vaccines Across the United States

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Vaccine Tracker

Recently, there is a new and very hopeful COVID-19 number for everyone to track: the total number of vaccine doses that have been administered in the United States. If 80 percent of Americans roll up their sleeves in the coming months and accept COVID-19 vaccinations, we can greatly slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in our communities and bring this horrible pandemic to an end in 2021.

So far, more than 20 million people in our country have received one or two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. While this number is lower than initially projected for a variety of logistical reasons, we’re already seeing improvements in the distribution system that has made it possible to get close to 1 million doses administered per day.

If you want to keep track of the vaccine progress in your state over the coming weeks, it’s now pretty easy to do online. A fine resource is the vaccine information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Data Tracker. It offers an interactive state-by-state map, as well as data on vaccinations in long-term care facilities. Keep in mind that there’s a delay of three to five days in reporting actual vaccinations from the states.

There’s also a lot of useful information on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center’s Vaccine Tracker. Posting the daily updates is a team, led by William Moss, that draws on the expertise of data scientists, analysts, programmers, and researchers. The Hopkins team gathers its vaccination data from each state’s official dashboard, webpages, press releases, or wherever cumulative numbers are reported. Not all states publish the same vaccine information, and that’s what can make the Vaccine Tracker so challenging to compile.

The Hopkins team now presents on its homepage the top 10 U. S. states and territories to vaccinate fully the highest percentage of their residents. With another click, there’s also a full rundown of vaccine administration by state and territory, plus the District of Columbia. The site also links to lots of other information about COVID-19—including cases, testing, contact tracing, and an interactive tool about vaccine development.

In uncertain times, knowledge can be a source of comfort. That’s what makes these interactive COVID-19 resources so helpful and empowering. They show that, with time, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines will indeed coming to everyone. I hope that you will accept your vaccine, like I did when given the opportunity. However, until we get to the point where most Americans are immunized, we must stay vigilant and keep up our tried-and-true public health measures such as wearing masks, limiting physical interactions (especially indoors), and washing our hands.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

CDC COVID Data Tracker (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

Coronavirus Resource Center (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)

William Moss (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore)

International Vaccine Access Center (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore)



Face Coverings Could Save 130,000 American Lives from COVID-19 by March

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Wearing a mask
Credit: Diane Baker

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has already claimed the lives of more than 230,000 Americans, the population of a mid-sized U.S. city. As we look ahead to winter and the coming flu season, the question weighing on the minds of most folks is: Can we pull together to contain the spread of this virus and limit its growing death toll?

I believe that we can, but only if each of us gets fully engaged with the public health recommendations. We need all Americans to do the right thing and wear a mask in public to protect themselves and their communities from spreading the virus. Driving home this point is a powerful new study that models just how critical this simple, low-cost step will be this winter and through the course of this pandemic [1].

Right now, it’s estimated that about half of Americans always wear a mask in public. According to the new study, published in Nature Medicine, if this incomplete rate of mask-wearing continues and social distancing guidelines are not adhered to, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States could soar to more than 1 million by the end of February.

However, the model doesn’t accept that we’ll actually end up at this daunting number. It anticipates that once COVID mortality reaches a daily threshold of 8 deaths per 1 million citizens, U.S. states would re-instate limits on social and economic activity—as much of Europe is now doing. If so, the model predicts that by March, such state-sanctioned measures would cut the projected number of deaths in half to about 510,000—though that would still add another 280,000 lives lost to this devastating virus.

The authors, led by Christopher Murray, Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluations, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, show that we can do better than that. But doing better will require action by all of us. If 95 percent of people in the U.S. began wearing masks in public right now, the death toll would drop by March from the projected 510,000 to about 380,000.

In other words, if most Americans pulled together to do the right thing and wore a mask in public, this simple, selfless act would save more than 130,000 lives in the next few months alone. If mask-wearers increased to just 85 percent, the model predicts it would save about 96,000 lives across the country.

What’s important here aren’t the precise numbers. It’s the realization that, under any scenario, this pandemic is far from over, and, together, we have it within our power to shape what happens next. If more people make the decision to wear masks in public today, it could help to delay—or possibly even prevent—the need for future shutdowns. As such, the widespread use of face coverings has the potential to protect lives while also minimizing further damage to the economy and American livelihoods. It’s a point that NIH’s Anthony Fauci and colleagues presented quite well in a recent commentary in JAMA [2].

As we anxiously await the approved vaccines for COVID-19 and other advances in its prevention and treatment, the life-saving potential of face coverings simply can’t be overstated. I know that many people are tired of this message, and, unfortunately, mask-wearing has been tangled up in political perspectives at this time of deep divisions in our country.

But think about it in the same way you think about putting on your seat belt—a minor inconvenience that can save lives. I’m careful to wear a mask outside my home every time I’m out and about. But, ultimately, saving lives and livelihoods as we head into these winter months will require a collective effort from all of us.

To do so, each of us needs to follow these three W’s: Wear a mask. Watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart). Wash your hands often.

References:

[1] Modeling COVID-19 scenarios for the United States. IHME COVID-19 Forecasting Team. Nat Med. 2020 Oct 23.

[2] Preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 with masks and other “low-tech” interventions. Lerner AM, Folkers, GK, Fauci AS. JAMA. 2020 October 26.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations (University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle)


NIH at 80: Sharing a Timeless Message from President Roosevelt

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This Saturday, October 31, marks an important milestone in American public health: the 80th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dedication of the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. The President’s stirring speech, delivered from the steps of NIH’s brand-new Administration Building (now called Building 1), was much more than a ribbon-cutting ceremony. It gave voice to NIH’s commitment to using the power of science “to do infinitely more” for the health of all people with “no distinctions of race, of creed, or of color.”

“We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation. And so, we must recruit not only men and materials, but also knowledge and science in the service of national strength,” Roosevelt told the crowd of about 3,000. To get a sense of what it was like to be there on that historic day, I encourage you to check out the archival video footage above from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

These words from our 32nd President are especially worth revisiting for their enduring wisdom during a time of national crisis. In October 1940, with World War II raging overseas, the United States faced the prospect of defending its shores and territories from foreign forces. Yet, at the same time as he was bolstering U.S. military capacity, Roosevelt emphasized that it was also essential to use biomedical research to shore up our nation’s defenses against the threats of infectious disease. In a particularly prescient section of the speech, he said: “Now that we are less than a day by plane from the jungle-type yellow fever of South America, less than two days from the sleeping sickness of equatorial Africa, less than three days from cholera and bubonic plague, the ramparts we watch must be civilian in addition to military.”

Today, in the midst of another national crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic—a similar vision is inspiring the work of NIH. With the aim of defending the health of all populations, we are supporting science to understand the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines for this disease that has already killed more than 225,000 Americans and infected more than 8.6 million.

As part of the dedication ceremony, Roosevelt thanked the Luke and Helen Wilson family for donating their 70-acre estate, “Tree Tops,” to serve as a new home for NIH. (Visitors to Wilson Hall in Building 1 will see portraits of the Wilsons.) Founded in 1887, NIH had previously been housed in a small lab on Staten Island, and then in two cramped lab buildings in downtown Washington, D.C. The move to Bethesda, with NIH’s first six buildings already dotting the landscape as Roosevelt spoke, gave the small agency room to evolve into what today is the world’s largest supporter of biomedical research.

Yet, as FDR gazed out over our fledging campus on that autumn day so long ago, he knew that NIH’s true mission would extend far beyond simply conducting science to providing much-needed hope to humans around the world. As he put it in his closing remarks: “I voice for America and for the stricken world, our hopes, our prayers, our faith, in the power of man’s humanity to man.”

On the 80th anniversary of NIH’s move to Bethesda, I could not agree more. Our science—and our humanity—will get us through this pandemic and show the path forward to brighter days ahead.

Links:

Who We Are: History (NIH)

Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum (NIH)

70 Acres of Science” (Office of NIH History)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)


Addressing the Twin Challenges of Substance Use Disorders and COVID-19

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At home with Nora Volkow

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is having a wide range of negative impacts on people affected by a variety of health conditions. Among the hardest hit are individuals struggling with substance use disorders, with recent data indicating that suspected drug-related overdoses and deaths are on the rise across the United States [1].

One recent analysis of nationwide surveillance data, collected by the federal Overdose Detection Mapping and Application Program, found that suspected drug overdoses rose by 18 percent in March, 29 percent in April, and 42 percent in May compared to the same months in 2019 [2]. Another analysis of state and local mortality data showed that drug-related deaths have increased about 13 percent so far this year, compared to last year [3].

To find out what may be contributing to this tragic situation and learn what NIH-funded research is doing to help, I recently had a conversation with Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Here’s a condensed version of our interview, which took place via videoconference, with both of us linking in from our homes near NIH’s main campus in Bethesda, MD

Collins: Here we are today talking about two public health crises: the crisis of COVID-19 and another crisis that has been going on for quite some time, of drug overdoses and drug deaths. The opioid crisis is difficult in any circumstance, but when you add to it what’s happening right now with the global COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes difficult squared. What has happened during this pandemic?

Volkow: One of the first things that we’ve heard from the communities and the families afflicted by addiction is that the support systems that were there to help people achieve recovery are no longer present. At the same time, it’s been much harder to get access to some of the treatment programs, including hospital emergency departments that can initiate treatment. It’s also been more difficult to access syringe exchange programs and programs, like Narcotics Anonymous, that provide people with a mentor and a social support system that’s fundamental for recovery. Part of recovery is also for individuals to work at re-building their lives, and that too has become much more challenging due to the threat of COVID-19.

All of these aspects are translating into much more stress. And stress, as we know, is one of the factors that leads people to relapse. Stress is also a factor that leads many to increase the consumption of drugs.

Collins: What about the impact of the stay-at-home orders for people who are depending on social networks? You’ve talked about Narcotics Anonymous as an example. But for anybody who’s faced stress challenges, mental health issues, which often coexist with drug problems, what’s the effect of losing those face-to-face social connections?

Volkow: Isolation is difficult for anyone. We depend on others for our wellbeing. The harder our situation, the more vulnerable we are if we don’t have those support systems.

One of the major concerns that we’ve had all along is not just the enormous risk of relapse in many people, but also the risk of suicide—which is always much higher in individuals that are addicted to drugs, particularly to opioids. Indeed, there’s been an increase in the number of suicides associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including among people that are addicted.

One of the elements we are using to try to overcome that is virtual interactions, like we are having right now. They are fulfilling, certainly for me. And when we’ve surveyed patients and families to see how much these virtual support systems are helping them, we see in many instances that this can be lifesaving. For example, with telehealth, a physician now can prescribe buprenorphine [a treatment medication] without necessarily having to see the individual physically. That’s a major breakthrough because it expands the number of people that can be treated. So, you can provide buprenorphine, and you can also provide support that someone with co-morbid mental illness may need. It’s not the same as physically being with others, but we have to recognize virtual technologies may enable greater equity in providing treatments.

Collins: What’s happened to methadone clinics, a place where people were required to show up in person every day? What’s become of people who depended on those?

Volkow: These spaces are small and there’s not enough staff, so it was very, very high risk. So, one of the positives of COVID-19 is that there was a change in the policy that enabled a methadone clinic to provide take-home methadone for patients, rather than have them come in daily and often at very restricted times, which made it incredibly difficult to comply.

We’re now trying to evaluate the outcomes when people are given take-home methadone. If we can show from evidence that the outcomes are as good as when you go in daily, then we hope that will help to transform these policies permanently.

Collins: So, there’s a silver lining in a few places. Are people who suffer from drug use disorders at increased risk of getting sick from COVID-19?

Volkow: There are many factors that place them at very, very high risk: pharmacological, structural, and social.

Pharmacological, because these drugs negatively affect multiple systems in your body and one of the main targets is the pulmonary system. If your pulmonary system already has pathology because of prior conditions, it’s much easier for the virus to actually infect you and lead to negative outcomes. That pertains to cigarette smoking that produces COPD and pulmonary damage, as well as to very toxic drugs like methamphetamine, which produces pulmonary hypertension; or opioids, which actually depress respiration and produce hypoxia.

You can see that the combination of depressed respiration and having a viral infection that attacks your lungs is not going to be positive. Indeed, it is very likely that that combination lowers the threshold for people to die from overdoses or to die from COVID-19. Drugs can also affect the cardiovascular system and the metabolic system, so all of the factors that we’ve identified as conditions that make you more vulnerable to COVID-19 are affected by drugs.

Then there are structural issues. We’ve already discussed methadone clinics, which put people together in very close spaces. Before COVID-19, one of our main priorities was to bring the treatment of substance use disorder and the screening into the healthcare system. But now the healthcare system is saturated and individuals who’ve gotten their treatment in healthcare systems no longer can access them and that restricts their ability to seek help. In our country, we basically criminalize people who take drugs, and many of them are in jail systems and prisons, where COVID-19 infections can rapidly occur. That is another element where they are at much higher risk.

Also, the number of individuals with substance use disorder who have medical insurance is much less than that of the general population. Not having such insurance is associated with a greater likelihood of having chronic medical conditions, which again is another risk factor for COVID-19. This mixes the structural with the social and, in the social category, you also have stigma.

Stigmatizing individuals with addiction makes them very vulnerable. That’s because, first of all, they are afraid to seek help—they don’t want to be discriminated against. Secondly, if they are in a situation where decisions are being made about providing medical care when resources are limited, that stigma can make them much more vulnerable.

While we are dealing with COVID-19, we cannot ignore the disparities that exist in our society. This pandemic has made it very clear how horrifically disparate health outcomes are between groups of people in our country.

Collins: Nora, you’ve been a real leader on what we might do to try to bring attention to helping people with drug use problems in the criminal justice system. This is often a point where an opportunity for treatment arises, but unfortunately that opportunity is often missed.

Volkow: One of our priorities as we address the opioid crisis is to do research in justice settings in order to be able to identify the models that lead to the best outcomes and to understand how to implement them. This has resulted in the creation of a research network that enables us to connect across the justice and the healthcare systems.

The network that started to emerge before COVID-19 hit has given us an opportunity to get direct information about what’s happening out there. From what we know, because prisons and jails are at such high risk for infection, many states—if not all—are releasing people that are not violent into their communities. Many of them have a substance use disorder. If someone has a long history of a substance use disorder, you cannot release them into the community without a support system, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where it’s hard to find a job and their families may be rejecting them. You can predict the outcome is going to be very poor, including dying from overdoses.

So, we now have a chance to show that treating these people in their community with appropriate support is going to lead to much better outcomes than leaving them in jail or prison. We are now working with our researchers and with appropriate agencies to figure out how to provide the support that’s necessary as individuals with substance use disorders are released into their communities. It can go both ways. Without support, the outcomes may be very poor. With support, we have the opportunity of transforming the way that we deal with addiction in this country.

Collins: A lot of people may not realize that effective medical treatment for substance use disorders does exist. Treatment has been demonstrated to change lives and improve outcomes over the long term. Still, a lot of folks out there think it’s just hopeless, or, alternatively, if someone just had a little bit more willpower, he or she would be able to take care of this. Please say a little bit about what the current treatment options are, and what the evidence is that they’re needed if you’re going to help somebody recover from a substance use disorder.

Volkow: There are medications for alcoholism and medications for nicotine use disorders. But, by far, the most effective medications are for opioid addiction. It’s very frustrating these medications are not necessarily given to patients—or sometimes even given to patients, but they reject them. I think part of the issue is because of the stigma against the medications. The opioid crisis has helped smooth that out somewhat, so there’s been a greater acceptance of medication. In partnership with the pharmaceutical industry, we have also been working towards developing extended-release formulations that make it much easier for people to take these medications.

In parallel, not just for opioid addiction, we have built up the scientific evidence for behavioral interventions that can improve outcomes for people with substance use disorder in general, if provided concurrently with medical treatment. Recognizing that there is a high risk of comorbidity with mental illness, we also need to provide treatments to address psychiatric disease problems or symptoms, as well as the addiction process. A lot of the work right now is going into creating models that allow this comprehensive treatment, tailored to the needs of the person.

Collins: Where can people who have a family member or friend who’s struggling with substance use disorder in the midst of COVID-19 go to get reliable evidence-based information about treatment programs?

Volkow: They can go to the NIDA website or the website of NIH’s sister agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). One of the problems is that there hasn’t been any way of assessing the quality of treatment for substance use disorder. For many other conditions, you can check the track records of this or that hospital for this or that surgery, but such information does not exist for substance use disorder.

So, we’ve been funding researchers to develop metrics that can predict good outcomes in treatment programs. These metrics can be based on the experiences of people and family that actually took these services, and from the structural characteristics of the program, such as whether they have the evidence-based components shown by research to lead to better outcomes. Researchers are now developing “report cards” for treatment programs that hopefully will do two things: give a family member a sense of how others are rating a program, and, importantly, incentivize treatment programs to do better.

Collins: It would be wonderful to have more objective data for people searching for good answers. Now, let’s talk about HEAL, which stands for Helping to End Addiction Long-term. HEAL is a trans-agency initiative funded by the Congress to support research to address, from multiple different directions, multiple different problems relating to addiction and chronic pain.

How does the HEAL initiative need to adapt to the current health crisis of COVID-19? And what’s your institute doing to try to address some of the significant problems that have emerged in just the last two or three months?

Volkow: COVID-19 has placed HEAL and much of our other research on a very slow trajectory. For example, one program that we were very interested in expanding was the use of the emergency department for the screening of opioid use disorder and the initiation of treatment medications. Another major HEAL program was going to start using the justice system to conduct clinical trials to evaluate the outcomes of different types of medication for opioid use disorder. They are all basically on hold.

Collins: Nora, what’s your hope going forward over the next few months? What can NIH do to try to address this situation in the most effective way possible?

Volkow: I am optimistic because I can see how science can help to solve extremely challenging problems. I think this is the time for science to shine again and show us that methodologies aimed at gathering objective data to develop optimal solutions can resolve problems. But the question is: how long will it take?

I’ve been very impressed about how these devastating circumstances have led us to question the pace at which we moved projects in the past. I think it is wonderful that we have recognized that time is a luxury, that we need to move rapidly. With respect to the issue of substance use disorders, I would hope that, as we as a nation become aware of the suffering that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting on all of us, we become more empathetic to the suffering of others.

And as I see the movements across the country speaking out against injustice, I would hope that this will also extend to diseases that have been stigmatized. We need to modify our stigma so we provide the same level of importance to treating these diseases and supporting people afflicted by them.

I think that science will prevail. What is going to be important is that we also allow for our humanity in order to use that science in a way that everyone can take advantage of it.

Collins: That’s a wonderful way to wind up because I think the calling to bring together science and compassion is what drives all of us who have the privilege of working at NIH, the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. Our purpose is clear: to find answers for all of these difficult problems that cause suffering and early death for people who deserve better.

Our vision is set on helping the most vulnerable populations right now. COVID-19 has pointed us toward that, and our discussion about those who suffer from substance use disorders also focuses on that.

I’m always one who likes to talk about hope, because, after all, that’s what we get up in the morning thinking about at NIH. We hope that our research efforts are going to lead to a new vaccine or a new treatment for COVID-19, or a better way of helping people who have been afflicted with drug problems.

Yet one of my favorite sayings is that “hope is a privilege that attaches to action.” This means that you can’t just say “Well, I hope for something,” unless you attach that hope to concrete actions you’re going to take.

Nora, your institute has been living that out. You don’t just hope that something good will happen to turn the tide of this terrible crisis of suffering and death from opioid overdoses, you’re all about action. So, thank you for your incredible dedication to the science and to the people whom we are trying to serve.

Volkow: Francis, thanks very much for your support.

References:

{1] Issue brief: Reports of increases in opioid-related overdose and other concerns during COVID pandemic, American Medical Association. Updated July 20, 2020

[2] “Cries for help’: Drug overdoses are soaring during the coronavirus pandemic.” William Wan, Healther Long. The Washington Post, July 1, 2020.

[3] “In the shadow of the pandemic, U.S. drug overdose deaths resurge to record.” Josh Katz, Abby Goodnough, Margot Sanger-Katz. July 15, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Overdose Mapping Application Program (White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Washington, D.C.)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH)

Video: Effects of COVID-19 on the Opioid Crisis: Francis Collins with Nora Volkow (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)


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