It's vacation time. You and your family visit a country where you've never been and, in fact, your parents or grandparents had never been. You find yourself hiking beside a beautiful lake. It's a gorgeous day. You dive in. You are not alone.
How can your T cells and B cells react to a pathogen they've never seen?
In the water swim parasites, perhaps a parasite called giardia. The invader slips in through your mouth or your urinary tract. This bug is entirely new to you, and there's more. It might be new to everyone you've ever met or come into contact with. The parasite may have evolved in this setting for hundreds of thousands of years so that it's different from any giardia bug you've ever come into contact with before or that thrives in the region where you live.
How can your T cells and B cells react to a pathogen they've never seen, never knew existed, and were never inoculated against, and that you, or your doctors, in all their wisdom, could never have foreseen?
This is the infinity problem.
For years, this was the greatest mystery in immunology.
As I reported An Elegant Defense -- my book about the science of the immune system told through the lives of scientists and medical patients -- I was repeatedly struck by the profundity of this question. It is hard to overstate: how can we survive in a world with such myriad possible threats?
Matt Richtel's new book about the science of the immune system, An Elegant Defense, was published this month.
To further underscore the quandary, the immune system has to neutralize threats without killing the rest of the body. If the immune system could just kill the rest of the body too, the solution to the problem would be easy. Nuke the whole party. That obviously won't work if we are to survive. So the immune system has to be specific to the threat while also leaving most of our organism largely alone.
"God had two options," Dr. Mark Brunvand told me. "He could turn us into ten-foot-tall pimples, or he could give us the power to fight 10 to the 12th power different pathogens." That's a trillion potential bad actors. Why pimples? Pimples are filled with white blood cells, which are rich with immune system cells. In short, you could be a gigantic immune system and nothing else, or you could have some kind of secret power that allowed you to have all the other attributes of a human being—brain, heart, organs, limbs—and still somehow magically be able to fight infinite pathogens.
Dr. Brunvand is a retired Denver oncologist, one of the many medical authorities in the book – from wizened T-cell innovator Dr. Jacques Miller, to the finder of fever, Dr. Charles Dinarello, to his eminence Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health to newly minted Nobel-Prize winner Jim Allison.
In the case of Dr. Brunvand, the oncologist also is integral to one of the book's narratives, a remarkable story of a friend of mine named Jason. Four years ago, he suffered late, late stage cancer, with 15 pounds of lymphoma growing in his back, and his oncologist put him into hospice. Then Jason became one of the first people ever to take an immunotherapy drug for lymphoma and his tumors disappeared. Through Jason's story, and a handful of other fascinating tales, I showcase how the immune system works.
There are two options for creating such a powerful immune system: we could be pimples or have some other magical power.
Dr. Brunvand had posited to me that there were two options for creating such a powerful and multifaceted immune system: we could be pimples or have some other magical power. You're not a pimple. So what was the ultimate solution?
Over the years, there were a handful of well-intentioned, thoughtful theories, but they strained to account for the inexplicable ability of the body to respond to virtually anything. The theories were complex and suffered from that peculiar side effect of having terrible names—like "side-chain theory" and "template-instructive hypothesis."
This was the background when along came Susumu Tonegawa.
Tonegawa was born in 1939, in the Japanese port city of Nagoya, and was reared during the war. Lucky for him, his father was moved around in his job, and so Tonegawa grew up in smaller towns. Otherwise, he might've been in Nagoya on May 14,1944, when the United States sent nearly 550 B-29 bombers to take out key industrial sites there and destroyed huge swaths of the city.
Fifteen years later, in 1959, Tonegawa was a promising student when a professor in Kyoto told him that he should go to the United States because Japan lacked adequate graduate training in molecular biology. A clear, noteworthy phenomenon was taking shape: Immunology and its greatest discoveries were an international affair, discoveries made through cooperation among the world's best brains, national boundaries be damned.
Tonegawa wound up at the University of California at San Diego, at a lab in La Jolla, "the beautiful Southern California town near the Mexican border." There, in multicultural paradise, he received his PhD, studying in the lab of Masaki Hayashi and then moved to the lab of Renato Dulbecco. Dr. Dulbecco was born in Italy, got a medical degree, was recruited to serve in World War II, where he fought the French and then, when Italian fascism collapsed, joined the resistance and fought the Germans. (Eventually, he came to the United States and in 1975 won a Nobel Prize for using molecular biology to show how viruses can lead, in some cases, to tumor creation.)
In 1970, Tonegawa—now armed with a PhD—faced his own immigration conundrum. His visa was set to expire by the end of 1970, and he was forced to leave the country for two years before he could return. He found a job in Switzerland at the Basel Institute for Immunology.
Around this time, new technology had emerged that allowed scientists to isolate different segments of an organism's genetic material. The technology allowed segments to be "cut" and then compared to one another. A truism emerged: If a researcher took one organism's genome and cut precisely the same segment over and over again, the resulting fragment of genetic material would match each time.
When you jump in that lake in a foreign land, filled with alien bugs, your body, astonishingly, well might have a defender that recognizes the creature.
This might sound obvious, but it was key to defining the consistency of an organism's genetic structure.
Then Tonegawa found the anomaly.
He was cutting segments of genetic material from within B cells. He began by comparing the segments from immature B cells, meaning, immune system cells that were still developing. When he compared identical segments in these cells, they yielded, predictably, identical fragments of genetic material. That was consistent with all previous knowledge.
But when he compared the segments to identical regions in mature B cells, the result was entirely different. This was new, distinct from any other cell or organism that had been studied. The underlying genetic material had changed.
"It was a big revelation," said Ruslan Medzhitov, a Yale scholar. "What he found, and is currently known, is that the antibody-encoding genes are unlike all other normal genes."
The antibody-encoding genes are unlike all other normal genes.
Yes, I used italics. Your immune system's incredible capabilities begin from a remarkable twist of genetics. When your immune system takes shape, it scrambles itself into millions of different combinations, random mixtures and blends. It is a kind of genetic Big Bang that creates inside your body all kinds of defenders aimed at recognizing all kinds of alien life forms.
So when you jump in that lake in a foreign land, filled with alien bugs, your body, astonishingly, well might have a defender that recognizes the creature.
Light the fireworks and send down the streamers!
As Tonegawa explored further, he discovered a pattern that described the differences between immature B cells and mature ones. Each of them shared key genetic material with one major variance: In the immature B cell, that crucial genetic material was mixed in with, and separated by, a whole array of other genetic material.
As the B cell matured into a fully functioning immune system cell, much of the genetic material dropped out. And not just that: In each maturing B cell, different material dropped out. What had begun as a vast array of genetic coding sharpened into this particular, even unique, strand of genetic material.
This is complex stuff. But a pep talk: This section is as deep and important as any in describing the wonder of the human body. Dear reader, please soldier on!
Researchers, who, eventually, sought a handy way to define the nature of the genetic change to the material of genes, labeled the key genetic material in an antibody with three initials: V, D, and J.
The letter V stands for variable. The variable part of the genetic material is drawn from hundreds of genes.
D stands for diversity, which is drawn from a pool of dozens of different genes.
And J is drawn from another half dozen genes.
In an immature B cell, the strands of V, D, and J material are in separate groupings, and they are separated by a relatively massive distance. But as the cell matures, a single, random copy of V remains, along with a single each of D and J, and all the other intervening material drops out. As I began to grasp this, it helped me to picture a line of genetic material stretching many miles. Suddenly, three random pieces step forward, and the rest drops away.
The combination of these genetic slices, grouped and condensed into a single cell, creates, by the power of math, trillions of different and virtually unique genetic codes.
In anticipation of threats from the unfathomable, our defenses evolved as infinity machines.
Or if you prefer a different metaphor, the body has randomly made hundreds of millions of different keys, or antibodies. Each fits a lock that is located on a pathogen. Many of these antibodies are combined such that they are alien genetic material—at least to us—and their locks will never surface in the human body. Some may not exist in the entire universe. Our bodies have come stocked with keys to the rarest and even unimaginable locks, forms of evil the world has not yet seen, but someday might. In anticipation of threats from the unfathomable, our defenses evolved as infinity machines.
"The discoveries of Tonegawa explain the genetic background allowing the enormous richness of variation among antibodies," the Nobel Prize committee wrote in its award to him years later, in 1987. "Beyond deeper knowledge of the basic structure of the immune system these discoveries will have importance in improving immunological therapy of different kinds, such as, for instance, the enforcement of vaccinations and inhibition of reactions during transplantation. Another area of importance is those diseases where the immune defense of the individual now attacks the body's own tissues, the so-called autoimmune diseases."
Indeed, these revelations are part of a period of time it would be fair to call the era of immunology, stretching from the middle of the 20th century to the present. During that period, we've come from sheer ignorance of the most basic aspects of the immune system to now being able to tinker under the hood with monoclonal antibodies and other therapies. And we are, in many ways, just at the beginning.
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.