Frequently Asked Questions About How to Protect Yourself from the Coronavirus
What's the case-fatality rate?
Currently, the official rate is 3.4%. But this is likely way too high. China was hit particularly hard, and their healthcare system was overwhelmed. The best data we have is from South Korea. The Koreans tested 210,000 people and detected the virus in 7,478 patients. So far, the death toll is 53, which is a case-fatality rate of 0.7%. This is seven times worse than the seasonal flu (which has a case-fatality rate of 0.1%).
What's the best way to clean your hands? Soap and water? Hand sanitizer?
Soap and water is always best. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly. (The CDC recommends 20 seconds.) If soap and water are not available, the CDC says to use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. The problem with hand sanitizer, however, is that people neither use enough nor spread it over their hands properly. Also, the sanitizer should be covering your hands for 10-15 seconds, not evaporating before that.
How often should I wash my hands?
You should wash your hands after being in a public place, before you eat, and before you touch your face. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling money and your cell phone, too.
How long can coronavirus live on surfaces?
It depends on the surface. According to the New York Times, "[C]old and flu viruses survive longer on inanimate surfaces that are nonporous, like metal, plastic and wood, and less on porous surfaces, like clothing, paper and tissue." According to the Journal of Hospital Infection, human coronaviruses "can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days, but can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures with 62–71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite within 1 minute." (Note: Sodium hypochlorite is bleach.)
Can Lysol wipes kill it?
Maybe not. It depends on the active ingredient. Many Lysol products use benzalkonium chloride, which the aforementioned Journal of Hospital Infection paper said was "less effective." The EPA has released a list of disinfectants recommended for use against coronavirus.
Should you wear a mask in public?
The CDC does not recommend that healthy people wear a mask in public. The benefit is likely small. However, if you are sick, then you should wear a mask to help catch respiratory droplets as you exhale.
Will pets give it to you?
That can't be ruled out. There is a documented case of human-to-canine transmission. However, an article in LiveScience explains that canine-to-human is unlikely.
Are there any "normal" things we are doing that make things worse?
Yes! Not washing your hands!!
What does it mean that previously cleared people are getting sick again? Is it the virus within or have they caught it via contamination?
It's not entirely clear. It could be that the virus was never cleared to begin with. Or it could be that the person was simply infected again. That could happen if the antibodies generated don't last long.
Will the virus go away with the weather/summer?
Quite likely, yes. Cold and flu viruses don't do well outside in summer weather. (For influenza, the warm weather causes the viral envelope to become a liquid, and it can no longer protect the virus.) That's why cold and flu season is always during the late fall and winter. However, some experts think that it is a "false hope" that the coronavirus will disappear during the summer. We'll have to wait and see.
And will it come back in the fall/winter?
That's a likely outcome. Again, we'll have to wait and see. Some epidemiologists think that COVID-19 will become seasonal like influenza.
Does dry or humid air make a difference?
Flu viruses prefer cold, dry weather. That could be true of coronaviruses, too.
What is the incubation period?
According to the World Health Organization, it's about 5 days. But it could be anywhere from 1 to 14 days.
Should you worry about sitting next to asymptomatic people on a plane or train?
It's not possible to tell if an asymptomatic person is infected or not. That's what makes asymptomatic people tricky. Just be cautious. If you're worried, treat everyone like they might be infected. Don't let them get too close or cough in your face. Be sure to wash your hands.
Should you cancel air travel planned in the next 1-2 months in the U.S.?
There are no hard and fast rules. Use common sense. Avoid hotspots of infection. If you have a trip planned to Wuhan, you might want to wait on that one. If you have a trip planned to Seattle and you're over the age of 60 and/or have an underlying health condition, you may want to hold off on that, too. If you do fly on a plane, former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb recommends cleaning the back of your seat and other close contact areas with antiseptic wipes. He also refuses to take anything handed out by flight attendants, since he says the biggest route of transmission comes from touching contaminated surfaces (and then touching your face).
There have been reports of an escalation of hate crimes towards Asian Americans. Can the microbiologist help illuminate that this disease has impacted all racial groups?
People might be racist, but COVID-19 is not. It can infect anyone. Older people (i.e., 60 years and older) and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk. Interestingly, young people (aged 9 and under) are minimally impacted.
To what extent/if any should toddlers -- who put everything in mouth -- avoid group classes like Gymboree?
If they get infected, toddlers will probably experience only a mild illness. The problem is if the toddler then infects somebody at higher risk, like grandpa or grandma.
Should I avoid events like concerts or theater performances if I live in a place where there is known coronavirus?
It's not an unreasonable thing to do.
Any special advice or concerns for pregnant women?
There isn't good data on this. Previous evidence, reported by the CDC, suggests that pregnant women may be more susceptible to respiratory viruses.
Advice for residents of long-term care facilities/nursing homes?
Remind the nurse or aide to constantly wash their hands.
Can we eat at Chinese restaurants? Does eating onions kill viruses? Can I take an Uber and be safe from infection?
Yes. No. Does the Uber driver or previous passengers have coronavirus? It's not possible to tell. So, treat an Uber like a public space and behave accordingly.
What public spaces should we avoid?
That's hard to say. Some people avoid large gatherings, others avoid leaving the house. Ultimately, it's going to depend on who you are and what sort of risk you're willing to take. (For example, are you young and healthy or old and sick?) I would be willing to do things that I would advise older people avoid, like going to a sporting event.
What are the differences between the L strain and the S strain?
That's not entirely clear, and it's not even clear that they are separate strains. There are some genetic differences between them. However, just because RNA viruses mutate doesn't necessarily mean that the virus will mutate to something more dangerous or unrecognizable by our immune system. The measles virus mutates, but it more or less remains the same, which is why a single vaccine could eradicate it – if enough people actually were willing to get a measles shot.
Should I wear disposable gloves while traveling?
No. If you touch something that's contaminated, the virus will be on your glove instead of your hand. If you then touch your face, you still might get sick.
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization—by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.