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."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”