In nature, few species remain dominant for long. Any sizable population of similar individuals offers immense resources to whichever parasite can evade its defenses, spreading rapidly from one member to the next.
Which will prove greater: our defenses or our vulnerabilities?
Humans are one such dominant species. That wasn't always the case: our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in groups too small and poorly connected to spread pathogens like wildfire. Our collective vulnerability to pandemics began with the dawn of cities and trade networks thousands of years ago. Roman cities were always demographic sinks, but never more so than when a pandemic agent swept through. The plague of Cyprian, the Antonine plague, the plague of Justinian – each is thought to have killed over ten million people, an appallingly high fraction of the total population of the empire.
With the advent of sanitation, hygiene, and quarantines, we developed our first non-immunological defenses to curtail the spread of plagues. With antibiotics, we began to turn the weapons of microbes against our microbial foes. Most potent of all, we use vaccines to train our immune systems to fight pathogens before we are even exposed. Edward Jenner's original vaccine alone is estimated to have saved half a billion lives.
It's been over a century since we suffered from a swift and deadly pandemic. Even the last deadly influenza of 1918 killed only a few percent of humanity – nothing so bad as any of the Roman plagues, let alone the Black Death of medieval times.
How much of our recent winning streak has been due to luck?
Much rides on that question, because the same factors that first made our ancestors vulnerable are now ubiquitous. Our cities are far larger than those of ancient times. They're inhabited by an ever-growing fraction of humanity, and are increasingly closely connected: we now routinely travel around the world in the course of a day. Despite urbanization, global population growth has increased contact with wild animals, creating more opportunities for zoonotic pathogens to jump species. Which will prove greater: our defenses or our vulnerabilities?
The tragic emergence of coronavirus 2019-nCoV in Wuhan may provide a test case. How devastating this virus will become is highly uncertain at the time of writing, but its rapid spread to many countries is deeply worrisome. That it seems to kill only the already infirm and spare the healthy is small comfort, and may counterintuitively assist its spread: it's easy to implement a quarantine when everyone infected becomes extremely ill, but if carriers may not exhibit symptoms as has been reported, it becomes exceedingly difficult to limit transmission. The virus, a distant relative of the more lethal SARS virus that killed 800 people in 2002 to 2003, has evolved to be transmitted between humans and spread to 18 countries in just six weeks.
Humanity's response has been faster than ever, if not fast enough. To its immense credit, China swiftly shared information, organized and built new treatment centers, closed schools, and established quarantines. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which was founded in 2017, quickly funded three different companies to develop three different varieties of vaccine: a standard protein vaccine, a DNA vaccine, and an RNA vaccine, with more planned. One of the agreements was signed after just four days of discussion, far faster than has ever been done before.
The new vaccine candidates will likely be ready for clinical trials by early summer, but even if successful, it will be additional months before the vaccine will be widely available. The delay may well be shorter than ever before thanks to advances in manufacturing and logistics, but a delay it will be.
The 1918 influenza virus killed more than half of its victims in the United Kingdom over just three months.
If we faced a truly nasty virus, something that spreads like pandemic influenza – let alone measles – yet with the higher fatality rate of, say, H7N9 avian influenza, the situation would be grim. We are profoundly unprepared, on many different levels.
So what would it take to provide us with a robust defense against pandemics?
Minimize the attack surface: 2019-nCoV jumped from an animal, most probably a bat, to humans. China has now banned the wildlife trade in response to the epidemic. Keeping it banned would be prudent, but won't be possible in all nations. Still, there are other methods of protection. Influenza viruses commonly jump from birds to pigs to humans; the new coronavirus may have similarly passed through a livestock animal. Thanks to CRISPR, we can now edit the genomes of most livestock. If we made them immune to known viruses, and introduced those engineered traits to domesticated animals everywhere, we would create a firewall in those intermediate hosts. We might even consider heritably immunizing the wild organisms most likely to serve as reservoirs of disease.
None of these defenses will be cheap, but they'll be worth every penny.
Rapid diagnostics: We need a reliable method of detection costing just pennies to be available worldwide inside of a week of discovering a new virus. This may eventually be possible thanks to a technology called SHERLOCK, which is based on a CRISPR system more commonly used for precision genome editing. Instead of using CRISPR to find and edit a particular genome sequence in a cell, SHERLOCK programs it to search for a desired target and initiate an easily detected chain reaction upon discovery. The technology is capable of fantastic sensitivity: with an attomolar (10-18) detection limit, it senses single molecules of a unique DNA or RNA fingerprint, and the components can be freeze-dried onto paper strips.
Better preparations: China acted swiftly to curtail the spread of the Wuhan virus with traditional public health measures, but not everything went as smoothly as it might have. Most cities and nations have never conducted a pandemic preparedness drill. Best give people a chance to practice keeping the city barely functional while minimizing potential exposure events before facing the real thing.
Faster vaccines: Three months to clinical trials is too long. We need a robust vaccine discovery and production system that can generate six candidates within a week of the pathogen's identification, manufacture a million doses the week after, and scale up to a hundred million inside of a month. That may be possible for novel DNA and RNA-based vaccines, and indeed anything that can be delivered using a standardized gene therapy vector. For example, instead of teaching each person's immune system to evolve protective antibodies by showing it pieces of the virus, we can program cells to directly produce known antibodies via gene therapy. Those antibodies could be discovered by sifting existing diverse libraries of hundreds of millions of candidates, computationally designed from scratch, evolved using synthetic laboratory ecosystems, or even harvested from the first patients to report symptoms. Such a vaccine might be discovered and produced fast enough at scale to halt almost any natural pandemic.
Robust production and delivery: Our defenses must not be vulnerable to the social and economic disruptions caused by a pandemic. Unfortunately, our economy selects for speed and efficiency at the expense of robustness. Just-in-time supply chains that wing their way around the world require every node to be intact. If workers aren't on the job producing a critical component, the whole chain breaks until a substitute can be found. A truly nasty pandemic would disrupt economies all over the world, so we will need to pay extra to preserve the capacity for independent vertically integrated production chains in multiple nations. Similarly, vaccines are only useful if people receive them, so delivery systems should be as robustly automated as possible.
None of these defenses will be cheap, but they'll be worth every penny. Our nations collectively spend trillions on defense against one another, but only billions to protect humanity from pandemic viruses known to have killed more people than any human weapon. That's foolish – especially since natural animal diseases that jump the species barrier aren't the only pandemic threats.
We will eventually make our society immune to naturally occurring pandemics, but that day has not yet come, and future pandemic viruses may not be natural.
The complete genomes of all historical pandemic viruses ever to have been sequenced are freely available to anyone with an internet connection. True, these are all agents we've faced before, so we have a pre-existing armory of pharmaceuticals and vaccines and experience. There's no guarantee that they would become pandemics again; for example, a large fraction of humanity is almost certainly immune to the 1918 influenza virus due to exposure to the related 2009 pandemic, making it highly unlikely that the virus would take off if released.
Still, making the blueprints publicly available means that a large and growing number of people with the relevant technical skills can single-handedly make deadly biological agents that might be able to spread autonomously -- at least if they can get their hands on the relevant DNA. At present, such people most certainly can, so long as they bother to check the publicly available list of which gene synthesis companies do the right thing and screen orders -- and by implication, which ones don't.
One would hope that at least some of the companies that don't advertise that they screen are "honeypots" paid by intelligence agencies to catch would-be bioterrorists, but even if most of them are, it's still foolish to let individuals access that kind of destructive power. We will eventually make our society immune to naturally occurring pandemics, but that day has not yet come, and future pandemic viruses may not be natural. Hence, we should build a secure and adaptive system capable of screening all DNA synthesis for known and potential future pandemic agents... without disclosing what we think is a credible bioweapon.
Whether or not it becomes a global pandemic, the emergence of Wuhan coronavirus has underscored the need for coordinated action to prevent the spread of pandemic disease. Let's ensure that our reactive response minimally prepares us for future threats, for one day, reacting may not be enough.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Scientists think it's unlikely that fully vaccinated individuals who have an asymptomatic infection are transmitting the Delta variant. That's because vaccinated people are thought to have relatively low levels of the virus in their respiratory tracts and therefore, they don't transmit as much virus.
Still, breakthrough infections can occur. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."