On December 18th, 2020, I received my first dose of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. On January 9th, 2021, I received my second. I am now a CDC-card-carrying, fully vaccinated person.
The build-up to the first dose was momentous. I was scheduled for the first dose of the morning. Our vaccine clinic was abuzz with excitement and hope, and some media folks were there to capture the moment. A couple of fellow emergency physicians were in the same cohort of recipients as I; we exchanged virtual high-fives and took a picture of socially distanced hugs. It was, after all, the closest thing we'd had to a celebration in months.
I walked in the vaccine administration room with anticipation – it was tough to believe this moment was truly, finally here. I got a little video of my getting the shot, took my obligate vaccine selfie, waited in the observation area for 15 minutes to ensure I didn't have a reaction, and then proudly joined 1000s of fellow healthcare workers across the country in posting #ThisIsMyShot on social media. "Here we go, America!"
The first shot, though, didn't actually do all that much for me. It hurt less than a flu shot (which, by the way, doesn't hurt much). I had virtually no side effects. I also knew that it did not yet protect me. The Pfizer (and Moderna) data show very clearly that although the immune response starts to grow 10-12 days after the first shot, one doesn't reach full protection against COVID-19 until much later.
So when, two days after my first shot, I headed back to work in the emergency department, I kept wondering "Will this be the day that I get sick? Wouldn't that be ironic!" Although I never go without an N95 during patient care, it just takes one slip – scratching one's eyes, eating lunch in a break room that an infected colleague had just been in – to get ill. Ten months into this pandemic, it is so easy to get fatigued, to make a small error just one time.
Indeed, I had a few colleagues fall ill in between their first and second shots; one was hospitalized. This was not surprising, but still sad, given how close they had come to escaping infection.
Scientifically speaking, one doesn't need to feel bad to develop an immune response. Emotionally, though, I welcomed the symptoms as proof positive that I would be protected.
This time period felt a little like we had our learner's permit for driving: we were on our way to being safe, but not quite there yet.
I also watched, with dismay, our failures as a nation at timely distribution of the vaccine. On December 18th, despite the logistical snafus that many of us had started to highlight, it was still somewhat believable that we would at least distribute (if not actually administer) 20 million doses by the New Year. But by December 31, my worst fears about the feds' lack of planning had been realized. Only 14 million doses had gone to states, and fewer than 3 million had been administered. Within the public health and medical community, we began to debate how to handle the shortages and slow vaccination rates: should we change prioritization schemes? Get rid of the second dose, in contradiction to what our FDA had approved?
Let me be clear: I really, really, really wanted my second dose. It is what is supported by the data. After living this long at risk, it felt frankly unfair that I might not get fully protected. I waited with trepidation, afraid that policies would shift before I got it in my arm.
At last, my date for my second shot arrived.
This shot was a little less momentous on the outside. The vaccine clinic was much more crowded, as we were now administering first doses to more people, as well as providing the second dose to many. There were no high fives, no media, and I took no selfies. I finished my observation period without trouble (as did everyone else vaccinated the same day, as is typical for these vaccines). I walked out the door planning to spend a nice afternoon outdoors with my kids.
Within 15 minutes, though, the very common side effects – reported by 80% of people my age after the second dose – began to appear. First I got a headache (like 52% of people my age), then body aches (37%), fatigue (59%), and chills (35%). I felt "foggy", like I was fighting something. Like 45% of trial participants who had received the actual vaccine, I took acetaminophen and ibuprofen to stave off the symptoms. There is some minimal evidence from other vaccines that pre-treatment with these anti-inflammatories may reduce antibodies, but given that half of trial participants took these medications, there's no reason to make yourself suffer if you develop side effects. Forty-eight hours later, just in time for my next shift, the side effects magically cleared. Scientifically speaking, one doesn't need to feel bad to develop an immune response. Emotionally, though, I welcomed the symptoms as proof positive that I would be protected.
My reaction was truly typical. Although the media hype focuses on major negative reactions, they are – statistically speaking – tremendously rare: fewer than 11/million people who received the Pfizer vaccine, and 3/million who received the Moderna vaccine, developed anaphylaxis; of these, all were treated, and all are fine. Compare this with the fact that approximately 1200/million Americans have died of this virus. I'll choose the minor, temporary, utterly treatable side effects any day.
Now, more than 14 days after my second dose, the data says that my chance of getting really sick is, truly, infinitesimally low. I don't have to worry that each shift will put me into the hospital. I feel emotionally lighter, and a little bit like I have a secret super-power.
But I also know that we are not yet home free.
I may have my personal equivalent of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak – but we don't yet know whether it protects those around me, at all. As Dr. Fauci himself has written, while community spread is high, there is still a chance that I could be a carrier of infection to others. So I still wear my N95 at work, I still mask in public, and I still shower as soon as I get home from a shift and put my scrubs right in the washing machine to protect my husband and children. I also won't see my parents indoors until they, too, have been vaccinated.
At the end of the day, these vaccines are both amazing and life-changing, and not. My colleagues are getting sick less often, now that many of us are a week or more out from our second dose. I can do things (albeit still masked) that would simply not have been safe a month ago. These are small miracles, for which I am thankful. But like so many things in life, they would be better if shared with others. Only when my community is mostly vaccinated, will I breathe easy again.
My deepest hope is that we all have – and take - the chance to get our shots, soon. Because although the symbolism and effect of the vaccine is high, the experience itself was … not that big a deal.
Every year, one in seven people in America comes down with a foodborne illness, typically caused by a bacterial pathogen, including E.Coli, listeria, salmonella, or campylobacter. That adds up to 48 million people, of which 120,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the variety of foods that can be contaminated with bacterial pathogens is growing too. In the 20th century, E.Coli and listeria lurked primarily within meat. Now they find their way into lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, causing periodic consumer scares and product recalls. Onions are the most recent suspected culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
Some of these incidents are almost inevitable because of how Mother Nature works, explains Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University. These common foodborne pathogens come from the cattle's intestines when the animals shed them in their manure—and then they get washed into rivers and lakes, especially in heavy rains. When this water is later used to irrigate produce farms, the bugs end up on salad greens. Plus, many small farms do both—herd cattle and grow produce.
"Unfortunately for us, these pathogens are part of the microflora of the cows' intestinal tract," Jaroni says. "Some farmers may have an acre or two of cattle pastures, and an acre of a produce farm nearby, so it's easy for this water to contaminate the crops."
Food producers and packagers fight bacteria by potent chemicals, with chlorine being the go-to disinfectant. Cattle carcasses, for example, are typically washed by chlorine solutions as the animals' intestines are removed. Leafy greens are bathed in water with added chlorine solutions. However, because the same "bath" can be used for multiple veggie batches and chlorine evaporates over time, the later rounds may not kill all of the bacteria, sparing some. The natural and organic producers avoid chlorine, substituting it with lactic acid, a more holistic sanitizer, but even with all these efforts, some pathogens survive, sickening consumers and causing food recalls. As we farm more animals and grow more produce, while also striving to use fewer chemicals and more organic growing methods, it will be harder to control bacteria's spread.
"It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives. But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end."
Luckily, bacteria have their own killers. Called bacteriophages, or phages for short, they are viruses that prey on bacteria only. Under the electron microscope, they look like fantasy spaceships, with oblong bodies, spider-like legs and long tails. Much smaller than a bacterium, phages pierce the microbes' cells with their tails, sneak in and begin multiplying inside, eventually bursting the microbes open—and then proceed to infect more of them. The best part is that these phages are harmless to humans. Moreover, recent research finds that millions of phages dwell on us and in us—in our nose, throat, skin and gut, protecting us from bacterial infections as part of our healthy microbiome. A recent study suggested that we absorb about 30 billion phages into our bodies on a daily basis. Now, ingeniously, they are starting to be deployed as anti-microbial agents in the food industry.
A Maryland-based phage research company called Intralytix is doing just that. Founded by Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist and epidemiologist who came to the United States from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Intralytix makes and sells five different FDA-approved phage cocktails that work against some of the most notorious food pathogens: ListShield for Listeria, SalmoFresh for Salmonella, ShigaShield for Shigella, another foodborne bug, and EcoShield for E.coli, including the infamous strain that caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that killed four children and sickened 732 people across four states. Earlier this month, the FDA granted its approval to yet another Intralytix phage for managing Campylobacter contamination, named CampyShield. "We call it safety by nature," Sulakvelidze says.
Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder."
Photo credit: Living Radiant Photography
Phage preparations are relatively straightforward to make. In nature, phages thrive in any body of water where bacteria live too, including rivers, lakes and bays. "I can dip a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay, and it will be full of all kinds of phages," Sulakvelidze says. "Sewage is another great place to look for specific phages of interest, because it's teeming with all sorts of bacteria—and therefore the viruses that prey on them." In lab settings, Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder." Once phages multiply enough, they are harvested, dispensed into containers and shipped to food producers who have adopted this disinfecting practice into their preparation process. Typically, it's done by computer-controlled sprayer systems that disperse mist-like phage preparations onto the food.
Unlike chemicals like chlorine or antibiotics, which kill a wide spectrum of bacteria, phages are more specialized, each feeding on specific microbial species. A phage that targets salmonella will not prey on listeria and vice versa. So food producers may sometimes use a combo of different phage preparations. Intralytix is continuously researching and testing new phages. With a contract from the National Institutes of Health, Intralytix is expanding its automated high-throughput robot that tests which phages work best against which bacteria, speeding up the development of the new phage cocktails.
Phages have other "talents." In her recent study, Jaroni found that phages have the ability to destroy bacterial biofilms—colonies of microorganisms that tend to grow on surfaces of the food processing equipment, surrounding themselves with protective coating that even very harsh chemicals can't crack. "Phages are very clever," Jaroni says. "They produce enzymes that target the biofilms, and once they break through, they can reach the bacteria."
Convincing the FDA that phages were safe to use on food products was no easy feat, Sulakvelidze says. In his home country of Georgia, phages have been used as antimicrobial remedies for over a century, but the FDA was leery of using viruses as food safety agents. "It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives," Sulakvelidze says. "But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end." The agency had granted Intralytix its first approval in 2006, and over the past 10 years, the company's sales increased by over 15-fold. "We currently sell to about 40 companies and are in discussions with several other large food producers," Sulakvelidze says. One indicator that the industry now understands and appreciates the science of phages was that his company was ranked as Top Food Safety Provider in 2021 by Food and Beverage Technology Review, he adds. Notably, phage sprays are kosher, halal and organic-certified.
Intralytix's phage cocktails to safeguard food from bacteria are approved for consumers in addition to food producers, but currently the company sells to food producers only. Selling retail requires different packaging like easy-to-use spray bottles and different marketing that would inform people about phages' antimicrobial qualities. But ultimately, giving people the ability to remove pathogens from their food with probiotic phage sprays is the goal, Sulakvelidze says.
It's not the company's only goal. Now Intralytix is going a step further, investigating phages' probiotic and therapeutic abilities. Because phages are highly specialized in the bacteria they target, they can be used to treat infections caused by specific pathogens while leaving the beneficial species of our microbiome intact. In an ongoing clinical trial with Mount Sinai, Intralytix is now investigating a potential phage treatment against a certain type of E. coli for patients with Crohn's disease, and is about to start another clinical trial for treating bacterial dysentery.
"Now that we have proved that phages are safe and effective against foodborne bacteria," Sulakvelidze says, "we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."