[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to several experts: "Under what circumstances would you send a child back to school, given that the virus is not going away anytime soon?"]
It is August. The start date of school is quickly approaching. Decisions must be made about whether to send our children back. As a physician, a public health researcher, and the mother of two school-aged children, I have few clear answers.
To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that - as many of us suspected all along - kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19.
Let me start with the obvious. My kids, and all kids, deserve a safe, in-person school year. We know the data on the adverse effects of school closure on kids, particularly for those who are already vulnerable. I also know, on a personal level, that distance learning is no substitute for in-person schooling. Homeschooling may be great for those with the privilege to do it, but I - like many Americans - am unable to quit my job, and children need more than a screen to learn.
Moreover, safe school reopening should not be an impossible dream. I and many other physicians, teachers, and scientists have described the bare minimum that we need to safely reopen schools: a stable, low rate of COVID-19 in the community; funding and mandates for basic public health precautions (like universal masking and small, stable classes) in the schools; and easy access to testing for kids and teachers. This has been achieved, successfully, in other countries.
Unfortunately, the United States has squandered its opportunity to do right by families. Across our country, rates of COVID-19 are rising. Few states have been able to sustain a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent - the maximum that most of us, in the public health world, would tolerate. Delays in testing are rampant. Systemic under-funding of public schools means that many schools simply can't afford to put basic public health measures in place. Worst, science denialism (and the spread of quack conspiracy theories online) means that many communities are fighting even the most basic of safety precautions.
To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that - as many of us suspected all along - kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19. This data increases the risk calculus. Our kids are not immune, and neither are we.
Given that the necessary societal interventions simply have not happened, most American families are therefore left making an individual choice: do I send my kid to school? Or not? There are five key questions for parents to ponder when making the difficult choice about what to do.
First, we must look at our community. Knowing that testing is difficult to obtain, a true estimate of community prevalence of COVID-19 is nearly impossible. But with a test positivity rate of more than 5 percent, it's safe to assume that in a school of 500 people, at least 1 will be positive for COVID-19. That is too high for safety. Whether or not the local government does the right thing, I would not send my child to in-person school if my community had these high rates of test positivity.
Second, we must look at our school district's policies. Will the school mandate masks? Are they cohorting students and teachers in small, stable groups? Do they have contact tracing and isolation policies in place for when a student or teacher inevitably tests positive? Do they have procedures to protect vulnerable teachers and staff? If not, I would not send my child to school. If the district is doing all of the above, I would consider it.
Third, we must look at the health profile of our own kids and families. If my child had chronic medical issues, or if I lived with my elderly parents or were myself at high risk of severe disease, I would not send my child to in-person school.
It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October.
Fourth, we must do the difficult, ethical weighing of the non-zero risk of infection (even in the safest communities) with the needs of our children. Even in low-prevalence states, there will be infections in the school setting. That said, the small risk of a severe infection may be outweighed by the social, emotional, and financial risk of keeping a child home. This decision must be made on a family-by-family basis. I know my answer; but I cannot provide this answer for others.
Finally, we must call attention to the fact that many kids and families have no options. There are far too many American children who literally depend on their school system for physical, nutritional, emotional, and academic safety. There are too many parents who have no way to earn an income and keep their kids safe without in-person learning. If anyone deserves to be prioritized for in-person schooling, it should be them. (And yes, we should also work to fix the social safety net that leaves these children high and dry.)
As I write this on August 2nd, 2020, I am planning to send my two children back to our public schools for in-person education. We have low rates of infection in our community, we have masking and stable cohorts in place, and my family is relatively healthy. We also depend on the schools to keep my children safe and engaged while I'm working in the ER! I will not hesitate, however, to pull my children out of school should any of these considerations change, if local test positivity rates go up, or if my children report that masking is not the norm in the classroom.
And sadly, I expect that this discussion will soon be a moot point. We continue to fail as a nation at basic public health policies. It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October. Our country has not shown the willpower to control the virus, leaving us all with, literally, no choice to make.
[Editor's Note: Here's the other essay in the Back to School series: Masks and Distancing Won't Be Enough to Prevent School Outbreaks, Latest Science Suggests.]
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.