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 David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.