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."
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.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.