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A visualization of the original coronavirus causing COVID-19, which has now been detected across the globe in a highly mutated form called Omicron.

If the new variant Omicron isn’t here already – which many experts suspect that it is – it will be soon. While we wait for scientists to conduct the necessary research to characterize its transmissibility, potential fitness at immune evasion, and disease severity, we wanted to give Leaps.org readers a window into how the U.S. is positioned to detect the variant. So we spoke to Kelly Wroblewski, director of infectious diseases at the Association of Public Health Laboratories, a membership organization that represents state and local government health labs in the United States. Here are seven insights she shared.

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Kira Peikoff

Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.

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An intergalactic explorer on a hypothetical mission to Mars.

(© dimazel/Adobe)

Social isolation. Strange pathogens outside. Strategic resource planning. Our Earthbound pandemic-driven social distancing could be mistaken for adapting to another, foreign planet. After all, we're donning all our protective apparel to go on an airplane or to the grocery store, nevertheless to just open our front door. Perhaps this is training for the world galactic visionaries Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson see in our future.

"There are parallels to the individual psychological experience, but from an operational standpoint, it is too different."

Ready to go live on Mars or something? Not so fast, experts say. The experience of shelter in place isn't parallel to being a space settler, or even an astronaut.

"Certain aspects are similar, but still, honestly, there are too many differences to say it preps us," says Angelo Vermeulen, co-founder of the art-science collective SEADS (Space Ecologies Art and Design) Network. In 2013, he served as a NASA crew commander for a four-month Mars-on-Earth mission, isolated in a geometric biodome with five others. "There are parallels to the individual psychological experience, but from an operational standpoint, it is too different. You don't need a spacesuit, aren't threatened by a thin atmosphere or worried about being overpowered by radiation."

Outside threats aside, we have a bigger experience gap: Most of us didn't see this pandemic coming and weren't trained to survive the current new normal. NASA astronauts get at least two years of basic training. We received none. Intergalactic explorers understand gravity, air pressure, and other important criteria based on decades of space knowledge. Alternatively, new novel coronavirus data is coming in real time, changing the threats, precautions, and needs dramatically. Things feel a little different when you're winging it.

Lastly, with respect to Apollo 13, space travelers have a timeline for when their experience will be over. There are mishaps, challenges and adjustments, but every well-supported journeyperson leaves Earth with an agenda (and a team back home to help keep them on track).

The pandemic, on the other hand, has no definitive end. It is unclear when a reliable vaccine will be readily available. It is also not known how long we should shelter-in-place, as pulling the trigger too early could bring another wave of illness. We are missing definitive milestones, which, Vermeulen says, would make our isolation experience easier to navigate. "When you're on a mission, the end date is always on the horizon. You can celebrate the midpoint and check off major milestones, which helps."

Also, unlike a kid pretending to be in a rocket, most of us didn't dream of one day being socially isolated for an indeterminate amount of time. "If you're ambitious and working in the field, then it is your goal in life to experience [space and the related isolation]," he says. "With the pandemic, though, nobody chose to do this."

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]

Damon Brown
Damon Brown co-founded the popular platonic connection app Cuddlr. Now he helps side hustlers, solopreneurs, and other non-traditional entrepreneurs bloom. He is author of the TED book "Our Virtual Shadow" and, most recently, the best-selling "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur" series. Join his creative community at www.JoinDamon.me.

In this illustration of immune defense, Y-shaped proteins called antibodies attack a virus.

(© Siarhei/Adobe)

When we get sick, our immune system sends its soldier cells to the battlefield. Called B-cells, they "examine" the foreign particles that shouldn't be in our bloodstream—and start producing the antibodies, the proteins to neutralize the invaders.

To screen the antibodies, scientists have developed a proprietary way to make the effective ones glow – like a literal "lightbulb" moment.

The better these antibodies are at neutralizing the pathogen, the faster we recover.

The antibodies acquired from COVID-19 survivors already showed promise in treating other patients, but because they must be obtained from people, generating a regular supply is not feasible. To close the gap, researchers are trying to identify the B-cells that make the best antibodies—and then farm them in laboratories at scale.

Scientists at Berkley Lights, a biotechnology company in California, have been screening B-cells from recovered patients and testing the antibodies they release for virus-neutralizing abilities. To screen the antibodies, scientists there have developed a proprietary way to make the effective ones glow – like a literal "lightbulb" moment.

So how does it work? First, the individual B-cells are placed into microscopic chambers called nano-pens, where they secrete the antibodies. Once released, the antibodies are flushed over tiny beads that have bits of the viral particles attached to them, along with special molecules that can emit fluorescent light.

"When an antibody binds to the bead, we see a bright light on the bead," explains John Proctor, the company's senior vice president of antibody therapeutics. "So we can identify which cells are making the antibodies."

Then the antibodies are tested for their ability to counteract the coronavirus's spike proteins, which the virus uses to break into our cells. Not all antibodies are equally good at this crucial defense move—some can block only parts of the virus's machinery, while others can neutralize it completely. Proctor and his colleagues are looking for the latter.

Once scientists identify the best performing B-cells, they crack the cells open—or in scientific terms "lyse" them—and extract the genetic instructions for making the antibodies. As it turns out, B-cells aren't very efficient at pumping out massive amounts of antibodies, so scientists insert these genetic instructions into a different, more prolific type of cell.

Named Chinese Hamster Ovary Cells or CHO, these cells are commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry because they can generate therapeutic proteins en masse. Under the right nutrient conditions, which include a lot of sugar, CHO cells can keep making the antibodies at commercial levels. "They are engineered to operate in very large bioreactors," Proctor explains.

While traditional antibody screening can take three months, the Beacon System can do it in less than 24 hours.

Berkeley Lights' technology has already been used to screen the antibodies of recovered patients from Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In another example, a biotech company GenScript ProBio used the platform to screen mice engineered to have human antibodies for the coronavirus.

In addition to its small, lab-on-a-chip size, Berkeley Lights' system allows scientists to greatly speed up the screening process. While traditional antibody screening can take three months, the Beacon System can do it in less than 24 hours. "We only need one B-cell per pen and a couple of beads to see that fluorescent signal," Proctor says. "It is a more advanced way to process and analyze cells, and that level of sensitivity is unique to our technology."

B-cells secreting antibodies inside the Berkeley Lights Beacon System Nano-Pens.

(Image Credit: the Australian Institute for Bioengineering & Nanotechnology at The University of Queensland)

While vaccines are likely to take months to develop and test, antibodies might arrive to the battleground sooner. With the extremely limited treatment options for COVID-19, antibody-based therapeutics can potentially bridge this gap.

Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.