Whether it's "natural selection" as Darwin called it, or it's "mutating" as the X-Men called it, living organisms change over time, developing thumbs or more efficient protein spikes, depending on the organism and the demands of its environment. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is not an exception, and now, after the virus has infected millions of people around the globe for more than a year, scientists are beginning to see those changes.
The notorious variants that have popped up include B.1.1.7, sometimes called the UK variant, as well as P.1 and B.1.351, which seem to have emerged in Brazil and South Africa respectively. As vaccinations are picking up pace, officials are warning that now
is not the time to become complacent or relax restrictions because the variants aren't well understood.
"It's like a thief changing clothes"<p>It's important to note that viruses mutate all the time. If there were funding and personnel to sequence the genome of every sample of the virus, scientists would see thousands of mutations. Not every variant deserves our attention. The vast majority of mutations are not important at all, but recognizing those that <em>are</em> is a crucial tool in getting and staying ahead of the virus. The work of sequencing, analyzing, observing patterns, and using public health tools as necessary is complicated and confusing to those without years of specialized training.</p><p>Jeremy Kamil, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at LSU Health Shreveport, in Louisiana, says that the variants developing are like a thief changing clothes. The thief goes in your house, steals your stuff, then leaves and puts on a different shirt and a wig, in the hopes you won't recognize them. Genomic surveillance catches the "thief" even in those different clothes.</p>
There's more to it than observing new variants<p>Analysis is complex, particularly when it comes to understanding which variants are of concern. "So the question is always if a mutation becomes common, is that a random occurrence?" says Phoebe Lostroh, associate professor of molecular biology at Colorado College. "Or is the variant the result of some kind of selection because the mutation changes some property about the virus that makes it reproduce more quickly than variants of the virus that don't have that mutation? For a virus, [mutations can affect outcomes like] how much it replicates inside a person's body, how much somebody breathes it out, whether the particles that somebody might breathe in get smaller and can lead to greater transmission."</p><p>Along with all of those factors, accurate and useful genomic surveillance requires an understanding of where variants are occurring, how they are related, and an examination of why they might be prevalent. </p><p>For example, if a potentially worrisome variant appears in a community and begins to spread very quickly, it's not time to raise a public health alarm until several important questions have been answered, such as whether the variant is spreading due to specific events, or if it's happening because the mutation has allowed the virus to infect people more efficiently. Kamil offered a hypothetical scenario to explain: Imagine that a member of a community became infected and the virus mutated. That person went to church and three more people were infected, but one of them went to a karaoke bar and while singing infected 100 other people. Examining the conditions under which the virus has spread is, therefore, an essential part of untangling whether a mutation itself made the virus more transmissible or if an infected person's behaviors contributed to a local outbreak.</p><p>One of the tricky things about variants is recognizing the point at which they move from interesting, to concerning at a local level, to dangerous in a larger context. Genomic sequencing can help with that, but only when it's coordinated. When the same mutation occurs frequently, but is localized to one region, it's a concern, but when the same mutation happens in different places at the same time, it's much more likely that the "virus is learning that's a good mutation," explains Kamil. </p><p>The process is called convergent evolution, and it was a fascinating topic long before COVID. Just as your heritage can be traced through DNA, so can that of viruses, and when separate lineages develop similar traits it's almost like scientists can see evolution happening in real time. A mutation to SARS-CoV-2 that happens in more than one place at once is a mutation that makes it easier in some way for the virus to survive and that is when it may become alarming. The widespread, documented variants P.1 and B.1.351 are examples of convergence because they share some of the same virulent mutations despite having developed thousands of miles apart. <br> <br> However, even variants that are emerging in different places at the same time don't present the kind of threat SARS-CoV-2 did in 2019. "This is nature," says Kamil. "It just means that this virus will not easily be driven to extinction or complete elimination by vaccines." Although a person who has already had COVID-19 can be reinfected with a variant, "it is almost always much milder disease" than the original infection, Kamil adds. Rather than causing full-fledged disease, variants have the potiental to "penetrate herd immunity, spreading relatively quietly among people who have developed natural immunity or been vaccinated, until the virus finds someone who has no immunity yet, and that person would be at risk of hospitalization-grade severe disease or death." </p>
Surveillance and predictions<p>According to Lostroh, genomic surveillance can help scientists predict what's going to happen. "With the British strain, for instance, that's more transmissible, you can measure how fast it's doubling in the population and you can sort of tell whether we should take more measures against this mutation. Should we shut things down a little longer because that mutation is present in the population? That could be really useful if you did enough sampling in the population that you knew where it was," says Lostroh. If, for example, the more transmissible strain was present in 50 percent of cases, but in another county or state it was barely present, it would allow for rolling lockdowns instead of sweeping measures.</p><p>Variants are also extremely important when it comes to the development, manufacture, and distribution of vaccines. "You're also looking at medical countermeasures, such as whether your vaccine is still effective, or if your antiviral needs to be updated," says Lane Warmbrod, a senior analyst and research associate at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. </p><p>Properly funded and extensive genomic surveillance could eventually help control endemic diseases, too, like the seasonal flu, or other common respiratory infections. Kamil says he envisions a future in which genomic surveillance allows for prediction of sickness just as the weather is predicted today. "It's a 51 for infection today at the San Francisco Airport. There's been detection of some respiratory viruses," he says, offering an example. He says that if you're a vulnerable person, if you're immune-suppressed for some reason, you may want to wear a mask based on the sickness report. </p>
The U.S. has the ability, but lacks standards<p>The benefits of widespread genomic surveillance are clear, and the United States certainly has the necessary technology, equipment, and personnel to carry it out. But, it's not happening at the speed and extent it needs to for the country to gain the benefits.</p><p> "The numbers are improving," said Kamil. "We're probably still at less than half a percent of all the samples that have been taken have been sequenced since the beginning of the pandemic." </p><p>Although there's no consensus on how many sequences is ideal for a robust surveillance program, modeling performed by the company Illumina suggests about 5 percent of positive tests should be <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2777988" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>sequenced</u></a>. The reasons the U.S. has lagged in implementing a sequencing program are complex and varied, but solvable.</p><p>Perhaps the most important element that is currently missing is leadership. In order to conduct an effective genomic surveillance program, there need to be standards. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently published a <a href="https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/pubs_archive/pubs-pdfs/2021/20210216-covid19-variants.pdf" target="_blank">paper with recommendations</a> as to what kinds of elements need to be standardized in order to make the best use of sequencing technology and analysis. </p><p>"Along with which bioinformatic pipelines you're going to use to do the analyses, which sequencing strategy protocol are you going to use, what's your sampling strategy going to be, how is the data is going to be reported, what data gets reported," says Warmbrod. Currently, there's no guidance from the CDC on any of those things. So, while scientists can collect and report information, they may be collecting and reporting different information that isn't comparable, making it less useful for public health measures and vaccine updates. </p><p>Globally, one of the most important tools in making the information from genomic surveillance useful is GISAID, a platform designed for scientists to share -- and, importantly, to be credited for -- their data regarding genetic sequences of influenza. Originally, it was launched as a database of bird flu sequences, but has evolved to become an essential tool used by the WHO to make flu vaccine virus recommendations each year. Scientists who share their credentials have free access to the database, and anyone who uses information from the database must credit the scientist who uploaded that information.</p>
Safety, logistics, and funding matter<p>Scientists at university labs and other small organizations have been uploading sequences to GISAID almost from the beginning of the pandemic, but their funding is generally limited, and there are no standards regarding information collection or reporting. Private, for-profit labs haven't had motivation to set up sequencing programs, although many of them have the logistical capabilities and funding to do so. Public health departments are understaffed, underfunded, and overwhelmed.</p><p>University labs may also be limited by safety concerns. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is dangerous, and there's a question of how samples should be transported to labs for sequencing. </p><p>Larger, for-profit organizations often have the tools and distribution capabilities to safely collect and sequence samples, but there hasn't been a profit motive. Genomic sequencing is less expensive now than ever before, but even at $100 per sample, the cost adds up -- not to mention the cost of employing a scientist with the proper credentials to analyze the sequence. </p>
The path forward<p>The recently passed COVID-19 relief bill does have some funding to address genomic sequencing. Specifically, the American Rescue Plan Act includes $1.75 billion in <a href="https://asm.org/Articles/Policy/2021/March-21/ASM-Hails-Game-Changing-Investment-in-Genomic-Surv" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>funding</u></a> for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) program. In an interview last month, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that the additional funding will be "a dial. And we're going to need to dial it up." AMD has already announced a collaboration called the Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology, and Surveillance <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/amd/whats-new/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>(SPHERES)</u></a> Initiative that will bring together scientists from public health, academic, clinical, and non-profit laboratories across the country with the goal of accelerating sequencing. </p><p>Such a collaboration is a step toward following the recommendations in the paper Warmbrod coauthored. Building capacity now, creating a network of labs, and standardizing procedures will mean improved health in the future. "I want to be optimistic," she says. "The good news is there are a lot of passionate, smart, capable people who are continuing to work with government and work with different stakeholders." She cautions, however, that without a national strategy we won't succeed. </p><p>"If we maximize the potential and create that framework now, we can also use it for endemic diseases," she says. "It's a very helpful system for more than COVID if we're smart in how we plan it."</p>
On the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring SARS-CoV-2 a global pandemic, it's hard to believe that so much and yet so little time has passed. The past twelve months seem to have dragged by, with each day feeling like an eternity, yet also it feels as though it has flashed by in a blur.
Nearly everyone I've spoken with, from recent acquaintances to my closest friends and family, have reported feeling the same odd sense of disconnectedness, which I've taken to calling "pandemic relativity." Just this week, Ellen Cushing published a piece in The Atlantic about the effects of "late-stage pandemic" on memory and cognitive function. Perhaps, thanks to twelve months of living this way, we have all found it that much more difficult to distill the key lessons that will allow us to emerge from the relentless, disconnected grind of our current reality, return to some semblance of normalcy, and take the decisive steps needed to ensure the mistakes of this pandemic are not repeated in the next one.
As a virologist who studies SARS-CoV-2 and other emerging viruses, and who sometimes writes and publicly comments on my thoughts, I've been asked frequently about what we've learned as we approach a year of living in suspension. While I always come up with an answer, the truth is similar to my perception of time: we've learned a lot, but at the same time, that's only served to highlight how much we still don't know. We have uncovered and clarified many scientific truths, but also revealed the limits of our scientific knowledge.
The Most Important Lessons Learned<p><strong>The dangers of false dichotomies.</strong> </p><p>From the early days, we have been guilty of binary thinking, and this has touched nearly every aspect of the pandemic. The following statements are not true, but the narratives are all too common: <em>The only outcomes of COVID-19 are full recovery or death. Masks either work perfectly or they don't work at all. Transmission only occurs entirely by droplets or is entirely airborne. Children are either complete immune or they are equally as susceptible as adults. Vaccines either completely protect against infection and illness or they are completely useless.</em> Any true student of biology can tell you that there are very rarely binary certainties that apply to every situation, but sensible public health advice can be rapidly derailed by discussing biological realities that exist on a continuum as if they are all categorically true or false.</p><p>It's a natural impulse to reduce complex systems to a choice of two options, and also to seek absolute certainty. A challenge for all scientists is how to communicate uncertainty when many people are understandably frustrated at this point and sick of hearing "we don't know." If we don't know now, when will we know? How much do we need to know to make good decisions? When will we get back to "normal"? In trying to simplify complex scientific concepts, we've made them hopelessly complicated. An important lesson going forward is that we should move away from black and white conversations about the emerging science and embrace the shades of gray, with all the nuance and uncertainty that entails. </p>
The Biggest Unknowns<p>While we have made extraordinary strides forward in better understanding SARS-CoV-2 and both the triumphs and the failures of the response to the greatest public health challenge of our lifetime, the lessons we've learned have highlighted the many questions that remain. We will be studying many aspects of the pandemic for decades. Long after SARS-CoV-2 is finished with humanity on a global scale, we will not be finished with it. Some of these remaining questions won't have easy answers, and in fact may not even be answerable. But it is critical to engage with these questions as we move into a post-pandemic future.</p><p><strong>The origin of SARS-CoV-2.</strong> </p><p>This topic is as confusing and murky as it is contentious, proving to be as confounding to science as it is disruptive to geopolitics. Multiple hypotheses abound: SARS-CoV-2 emerged into the human population naturally, passing from an infected animal to an unlucky human in the wrong place at the wrong time in a process called zoonotic spillover. This natural origin hypothesis is considered the most likely, as this is overwhelmingly the most common path for novel viruses to emerge in the human population. </p>
The approval of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has been heralded as a major advance. A single-dose vaccine that is highly efficacious at removing the ability of the virus to cause severe disease, hospitalization, and death (even in the face of variants) is nothing less than pathbreaking. Anyone who is offered this vaccine should take it. However, one group advises its adherents to preferentially request the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines instead in the quest for morally "irreproachable" vaccines.
Is this group concerned about lower numerical efficacy in clinical trials? No, it seems that they have deemed the J&J vaccine "morally compromised". The group is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and if something is "morally compromised" it is surely not the vaccine. (Notably Pope Francis has not taken such a stance).
Dr. Adalja is focused on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity. He has served on US government panels tasked with developing guidelines for the treatment of plague, botulism, and anthrax in mass casualty settings and the system of care for infectious disease emergencies, and as an external advisor to the New York City Health and Hospital Emergency Management Highly Infectious Disease training program, as well as on a FEMA working group on nuclear disaster recovery. Dr. Adalja is an Associate Editor of the journal Health Security. He was a coeditor of the volume Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, a contributing author for the Handbook of Bioterrorism and Disaster Medicine, the Emergency Medicine CorePendium, Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple, UpToDate's section on biological terrorism, and a NATO volume on bioterrorism. He has also published in such journals as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Emerging Infectious Diseases, and the Annals of Emergency Medicine. He is a board-certified physician in internal medicine, emergency medicine, infectious diseases, and critical care medicine. Follow him on Twitter: @AmeshAA