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.
Some appear to be more transmissible, and deadlier, while others can evade the immune system's defenses better than earlier versions of the virus, potentially undermining the effectiveness of vaccines to some degree. Genomic surveillance, the process of sequencing the genetic code of the virus widely to observe changes and patterns, is a critical way that scientists can keep track of its evolution and work to understand how the variants might affect humans.
"It's like a thief changing clothes"
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 are 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.
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.
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.
Understanding variants, both the uninteresting ones and the potentially concerning ones, gives public health officials and researchers at different levels a useful set of tools. Locally, knowing which variants are circulating in the community helps leaders know whether mask mandates and similar measures should be implemented or discontinued, or whether businesses and schools can open relatively safely.
There's more to it than observing new variants
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Surveillance and predictions
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.
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.
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.
The U.S. has the ability, but lacks standards
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.
"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."
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 sequenced. The reasons the U.S. has lagged in implementing a sequencing program are complex and varied, but solvable.
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 paper with recommendations as to what kinds of elements need to be standardized in order to make the best use of sequencing technology and analysis.
"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.
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.
Safety, logistics, and funding matter
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.
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.
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.
The path forward
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 funding 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 (SPHERES) Initiative that will bring together scientists from public health, academic, clinical, and non-profit laboratories across the country with the goal of accelerating sequencing.
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.
"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."
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.