One of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is the way in which it has forced us to question our hopes. In normal times, hope is a tonic we take in small doses to keep us moving forward through the slog of daily life. The pandemic, however, has made it a much scarcer commodity, spurring us not only to seek it more desperately but to scrutinize it more closely.
Every bit of reassurance seems to come with caveats: Masks can shield us from the coronavirus, but they may need to be doubled in some situations to provide adequate protection. Vaccines work, but they may not be as effective against some viral variants—and they can cause extremely rare but serious side effects. Every few weeks, another potential miracle cure makes headlines (Hydroxychloroquine! Convalescent plasma!), only to prove disappointing on closer inspection. It's hard to know which alleged breakthroughs are worth pinning our hopes on, and which are the products of wishful thinking or hucksterism.
In January 2021, a study published in the journal Gut offered evidence that bacteria in the intestines might influence a whole spectrum of symptoms in long-haul patients.
Lately, two possible sources of hope have emerged concerning so-called "long COVID"—the debilitating syndrome, estimated to affect up to one-third of patients, in which physical, neurological, and cognitive symptoms persist for months. The first encouraging item has gotten plenty of media attention: reports that some long-haulers feel better after being vaccinated. The second item, while less widely covered, has caused a stir among scientists: a study suggesting that rebalancing the gut microbiome—the community of microorganisms in our intestines—could decrease both the severity and duration of the illness.
How optimistic should we allow ourselves to be about either of these developments? Experts warn that it's too soon to tell. Yet research into how vaccines and gut bacteria affect long-haulers—and how both factors might work together—could eventually help solve key pieces of the pandemic puzzle.
Investigating the Role of the Gut Microbiome
The idea that there may be a link between COVID-19 and gut health comes as no surprise to Jessica Lovett. Her case began in June 2020 with gastrointestinal distress—a symptom that was just beginning to be recognized as commonplace in what had initially been considered a respiratory illness. "I had diarrhea three to five times a day for two months," Lovett recalls. "I lost a lot of weight." By July, she was also suffering shortness of breath, chest pain, racing heartbeat, severe fatigue, brain fog, migraines, memory lapses, and more. As with many other COVID long-haulers, these troubles waxed and waned in an endless parade.
Lovett was the marketing manager for a music school in Austin, Texas, and the mother of a two-year-old boy. Just before she got sick, she ran a 5K race for her 40th birthday. Afterward, she had to give up her job, stop driving, and delegate childcare to her husband (who fell ill shortly before she did but recovered in 12 days). Tests showed no visible damage to her lungs, heart, or other organs. But she felt intuitively that taming her GI troubles would be key to getting well. On the advice of fellow patients in a long-COVID Facebook group—and, later, with the guidance of a doctor—she tried avoiding foods thought to trigger histamine reactions or inflammation. That seemed to help some, as did nutritional supplements, antihistamines, and angina medications. Still, she relapsed frequently, and was often bedridden.
In January 2021, a study published in the journal Gut offered evidence that bacteria in the intestines might influence a whole spectrum of symptoms in patients like Lovett. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong examined blood and stool samples and medical records from 100 hospital patients with lab-confirmed COVID-19 infections, and from 78 people without the disease who were taking part in a microbiome study before the pandemic.
The team, led by professor Siew Chien Ng, found that the makeup of the gut microbiome differed sharply between the two groups. Patients with COVID had higher levels of three bacterial species than those without the infection, but lower levels of several species known to enhance immune system response. Reductions in two of those species—Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Bifidobacterium bifidum—were associated with more severe symptoms. And the numbers of such helpful bacteria remained low in stool samples collected up to 30 days after infected patients had seemingly cleared the coronavirus from their bodies.
Analysis of blood samples, moreover, showed that these bacterial imbalances correlated with higher levels of inflammatory cytokines (immune system chemicals that are elevated in many patients with severe COVID-19) and markers of tissue damage, such as C-reactive protein.
These findings led the researchers to suggest that rebalancing the microbiome might lessen not only the intensity of COVID symptoms, but also their persistence. "Bolstering of beneficial gut species depleted in COVID-19," they wrote, "could serve as a novel avenue to mitigate severe disease, underscoring the importance of managing patients' gut biota during and after COVID-19."
Soon afterward, Ng revealed that she was working on a solution. Her team, she told Medscape, had developed "a microbiome immunity product that is targeted to what is missing in COVID-19 patients." Early research showed that hospitalized patients who received the treatment developed more antibodies, had fewer symptoms, and were discharged sooner. "So it is quite a bright and promising future," she enthused, "in alleviating some of these detrimental effects of the virus."
The Chicken-and-Egg Problem
Ng's study isn't the only one to suggest a connection between the gut and long COVID. Researchers led by gastroenterologist Saurabh Mehandru at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital recently determined that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can linger in the intestines for months after a patient tests negative. Some studies have also found that gastrointestinal symptoms in the acute phase of the illness correlate with poorer outcomes—though that's far from settled. (In another study, Mehandru's team found lower mortality among patients presenting with GI symptoms.) But the Hong Kong group's paper was the first to posit that resident microbes may play a decisive role in the disease.
That view reflects growing evidence that these bugs can influence a range of ailments, from diabetes to schizophrenia. Over the past decade, the gut microbiome has emerged as a central regulator of the immune system. Some intestinal bacteria emit chemicals that signal immune cells to reduce production of inflammatory proteins, or help those cells effectively target invading pathogens. They also help maintain the integrity of the intestinal lining—preventing the syndrome known as "leaky gut," in which harmful microbes or toxins penetrate to the underlying tissue, potentially wreaking havoc throughout the body and brain.
Nonetheless, many experts have responded to Ng's findings with distinct caution. One problem, they point out, is the chicken-and-egg question: Do reduced levels of beneficial gut bacteria trigger the inflammation seen in COVID-19, or does inflammation triggered by COVID-19 kill off beneficial gut bacteria? "It's an issue of causality versus just association," explains Somsouk Ma, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of California, San Francisco. "I tend to think that the shift in microbes is more likely a consequence of the infection. But, of course, that's just speculation."
A related issue is whether a pill that replenishes "good" bacteria can really combat the effects of COVID-19—whether acute or chronic. Although scientists are studying fecal transplants and other probiotic therapies for many disorders, none has yet been approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. "The only situation where bacterial transplantation is known to work is in a form of colitis called Clostridium difficile," notes Mehandru. "I think it's a bit premature to lay too much emphasis on this in the context of COVID."
Placebo-controlled clinical trials will be needed to determine the efficacy of Ng's approach. (Consumer warning: The bacteria she's employing are not found in commercially available probiotics.) Whatever the results, such research—along with studies that track patients' gut microbiomes before, during, and after COVID-19 infection—could help scientists understand why some people have such trouble kicking the disease.
An Unexpected Benefit of Vaccines
The question of what causes long COVID is also central to understanding the effects of vaccines on the condition. In March, as inoculation campaigns took off across the nation, many long-haulers were delighted to see their symptoms disappear within days of getting the shot. "I woke up and it was like, 'Oh what a beautiful morning,'" one patient told The New York Times.
Yet the effects have been far from uniform. Although scientific surveys have not yet been conducted, an April poll by a Facebook group called Survivor Corps found numbers close to experts' estimates: 39 percent said they experienced partial to full recovery post-vaccination; 46 percent saw no difference; and 14 percent felt worse.
How could vaccines—which are designed to prevent COVID-19, not cure it—help some chronic patients get well? In a blog post, Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki suggested that the answer depends on what is driving a particular patient's symptoms. Iwasaki identified three possible mechanisms behind long COVID: 1) a persistent viral reservoir; 2) a "viral ghost," composed of fragments of the virus (RNA or proteins) that linger after the infection has been cleared but can still stimulate inflammation; and 3) an autoimmune response triggered by the infection, inducing a patient's immune cells to attack her own tissues.
These mechanisms "are not mutually exclusive," Iwasaki wrote, "and all three might benefit from the vaccines." If a patient has a viral reservoir, vaccine-induced immune cells and antibodies might be able to eliminate it. If the patient has a viral ghost, those vaccine-primed immune responses might knock it out as well. And if the patient is suffering from a COVID-triggered autoimmune syndrome, the vaccine might act as a decoy, shifting the immune system's attention to antigens contained in the shot (and perhaps reprogramming autoimmune cells in the process). The varying role of these underlying factors, and possibly others—such as the gut microbiome—might also help explain why vaccines don't benefit all long-haulers equally. Iwasaki and her team recently launched a clinical study to investigate this theory.
Pato Hebert, a professor of art and public policy at NYU, contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 while on sabbatical in Los Angeles. Hebert, then 50, started out with mild flu-like symptoms, but he was slammed with fatigue, headaches, and confusion a week after testing positive. In April, he landed in urgent care with severe shortness of breath. His brain fog worsened that summer, and a gentle swim brought on a dizzy spell so overwhelming that he feared it was a stroke. (Thankfully, tests showed it wasn't.) In September, he developed severe GI issues, which came and went over the following months. He found some relief through medications, dietary adjustments, acupuncture, herbal remedies, and careful conservation of his physical and mental energy—but a year after his diagnosis, he was still sick.
Hebert received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine on March 1, 2021; it made no difference in his symptoms. After his second dose, on the 29th, he suffered terrible headaches—"like early COVID days," he told me. A week later, his condition had improved slightly compared to pre-vaccination. "With a few exceptions, my fatigue and brain fog have been less challenging," he reported. "I'm cautiously optimistic." But in late April, he suffered another flareup of respiratory and GI issues.
For Jessica Lovett, the vaccine's effects were more dramatic. After her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech formula, on February 26, her cognitive symptoms improved enough that she was able to drive again; within a week, she was pushing her son uphill in a stroller, lifting light weights, and running for short distances. After the second dose, she says, "I had incredible energy. It was insane, like I drank three cups of coffee."
Lovett (who now runs a Facebook support group for Austin locals, ATX Covid Long Haulers) stresses that the vaccine hasn't cured her. She winds up back in bed whenever she pushes herself too hard. She still needs to take antihistamines and shun certain foodstuffs; any slip-up brings another relapse. Yet she's able to live more fully than at any time since she fell ill—and she has begun to feel a renewed sense of hope.
Recently, in fact, she and her husband decided to expand their family. "I guess that tells you something," she says with a laugh. "The doctors have given us the okay, and we're going to try."
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.
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, we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."
Intralytix's phage cocktails are approved for consumers also, but currently the company sells to food producers only. "We'd like to sell to consumers also and we can do any time, but we just haven't gotten there yet," Sulakvelidze explains. 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. "We would like to make it available to consumers."
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."