After COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, life as we knew it altered dramatically and millions went into lockdown. Since then, most of the world has had to contend with masks, distancing, ventilation and cycles of lockdowns as surges flare up. Deaths from COVID-19 infection, along with economic and mental health effects from the shutdowns, have been devastating. The need for an ultimate solution -- safe and effective vaccines -- has been paramount.
On November 9, 2020 (just 8 months after the pandemic announcement), the press release for the first effective COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech was issued, followed by positive announcements regarding the safety and efficacy of five other vaccines from Moderna, University of Oxford/AztraZeneca, Novavax, Johnson and Johnson and Sputnik V. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have earned emergency use authorization through the FDA in the United States and are being distributed. We -- after many long months -- are seeing control of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic glimmering into sight.
To be clear, these vaccine candidates for COVID-19, both authorized and not yet authorized, are highly effective and safe. In fact, across all trials and sites, all six vaccines were 100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and death from COVID-19.
All Vaccines' Phase 3 Clinical Data
Complete protection against hospitalization and death from COVID-19 exhibited by all vaccines with phase 3 clinical trial data.
This astounding level of protection from SARS-CoV-2 from all vaccine candidates across multiple regions is likely due to robust T cell response from vaccination and will "defang" the virus from the concerns that led to COVID-19 restrictions initially: the ability of the virus to cause severe illness. This is a time of hope and optimism. After the devastating third surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths over the winter, we finally have an opportunity to stem the crisis – if only people readily accept the vaccines.
Amidst these incredible scientific advancements, however, public health officials and politicians have been pushing downright discouraging messaging. The ubiquitous talk of ongoing masks and distancing restrictions without any clear end in sight threatens to dampen uptake of the vaccines. It's imperative that we break down each concern and see if we can revitalize our public health messaging accordingly.
The first concern: we currently do not know if the vaccines block asymptomatic infection as well as symptomatic disease, since none of the phase 3 vaccine trials were set up to answer this question. However, there is biological plausibility that the antibodies and T-cell responses blocking symptomatic disease will also block asymptomatic infection in the nasal passages. IgG immunoglobulins (generated and measured by the vaccine trials) enter the nasal mucosa and systemic vaccinations generate IgA antibodies at mucosal surfaces. Monoclonal antibodies given to outpatients with COVID-19 hasten viral clearance from the airways.
Although it is prudent for those who are vaccinated to wear masks around the unvaccinated in case a slight risk of transmission remains, two fully vaccinated people can comfortably abandon masking around each other.
Moreover, data from the AztraZeneca trial (including in the phase 3 trial final results manuscript), where weekly self-swabbing was done by participants, and data from the Moderna trial, where a nasal swab was performed prior to the second dose, both showed risk reductions in asymptomatic infection with even a single dose. Finally, real-world data from a large Pfizer-based vaccine campaign in Israel shows a 50% reduction in infections (asymptomatic or symptomatic) after just the first dose.
Therefore, the likelihood of these vaccines blocking asymptomatic carriage, as well as symptomatic disease, is high. Although it is prudent for those who are vaccinated to wear masks around the unvaccinated in case a slight risk of transmission remains, two fully vaccinated people can comfortably abandon masking around each other. Moreover, as the percentage of vaccinated people increases, it will be increasingly untenable to impose restrictions on this group. Once herd immunity is reached, these restrictions can and should be abandoned altogether.
The second concern translating to "doom and gloom" messaging lately is around the identification of troubling new variants due to enhanced surveillance via viral sequencing. Four major variants circulating at this point (with others described in the past) are the B.1.1.7 variant ("UK variant"), B.1.351 ("South Africa variant), P.1. ("Brazil variant"), and the L452R variant identified in California. Although the UK variant is likely to be more transmissible, as is the South Africa variant, we have no reason to believe that masks, distancing and ventilation are ineffective against these variants.
Moreover, neutralizing antibody titers with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not seem to be significantly reduced against the variants. Finally, although the Novavax 2-dose and Johnson and Johnson (J&J) 1-dose vaccines had lower rates of efficacy against moderate COVID-19 disease in South Africa, their efficacy against severe disease was impressively high. In fact J&J's vaccine still prevented 100% of hospitalizations and death from COVID-19. When combining both hospitalizations/deaths and severe symptoms managed at home, the J&J 1-dose vaccine was 85% protective across all three sites of the trial: the U.S., Latin America (including Brazil), and South Africa.
In South Africa, nearly all cases of COVID-19 (95%) were due to infection with the B.1.351 SARS-CoV-2 variant. Finally, since herd immunity does not rely on maximal immune responses among all individuals in a society, the Moderna/Pfizer/J&J vaccines are all likely to achieve that goal against variants. And thankfully, all of these vaccines can be easily modified to boost specifically against a new variant if needed (indeed, Moderna and Pfizer are already working on boosters against the prominent variants).
The third concern of some public health officials is that people will abandon all restrictions once vaccinated unless overly cautious messages are drilled into them. Indeed, the false idea that if you "give people an inch, they will take a mile" has been misinforming our messaging about mitigation since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, the very phrase "stay at home" with all of its non-applicability for essential workers and single individuals is stigmatizing and unrealistic for many. Instead, the message should have focused on how people can additively reduce their risks under different circumstances.
The public will be more inclined to trust health officials if those officials communicate with nuanced messages backed up by evidence, rather than with broad brushstrokes that shame. Therefore, we should be saying that "vaccinated people can be together with other vaccinated individuals without restrictions but must protect the unvaccinated with masks and distancing." And we can say "unvaccinated individuals should adhere to all current restrictions until vaccinated" without fear of misunderstandings. Indeed, this kind of layered advice has been communicated to people living with HIV and those without HIV for a long time (if you have HIV but partner does not, take these precautions; if both have HIV, you can do this, etc.).
Our heady progress in vaccine development, along with the incredible efficacy results of all of them, is unprecedented. However, we are at risk of undermining such progress if people balk at the vaccine because they don't believe it will make enough of a difference. One of the most critical messages we can deliver right now is that these vaccines will eventually free us from the restrictions of this pandemic. Let's use tiered messaging and clear communication to boost vaccine optimism and uptake, and get us to the goal of close human contact once again.
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."