COVID Variants Are Like “a Thief Changing Clothes” – and Our Camera System Barely Exists
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."
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.