Scientists Strive To Detect New Viruses
Scientists strive: Back in the summer, Dr. Michael Mina dealt with a cold storage company. With many restaurant customers shutting down, the company had freezers to spare. And Mina, a public health researcher at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, had half a million vials of human blood plasma from her lab across the country, samples dating back to the carefree days of January 2020.
In three large freezers outside Mina’s lab, the vials are at the center of a pilot project for what he and his collaborators call the Global Immunology Observatory. They envision a huge surveillance system that can check blood worldwide for antibodies to hundreds of viruses at once. That way, when the next pandemic hits us, scientists will have detailed, real-time information on how many people are infected with the virus and how their bodies are reacting.
It might even offer a warning, like a tornado warning. Although this surveillance system cannot directly Scientists Strive To Detect New Viruses Before They Spread And Cause Future Pandemics 2021- Mongersmint detect new viruses or variants, it could indicate when many people start to gain immunity to a particular type of virus.
The human immune system keeps a record of pathogens it has encountered before, in the form of antibodies that fight them and stay for life. By testing these antibodies, scientists can get a glimpse of which flu viruses you’ve had, what that rhinovirus is that passed through you last fall, even though you had a respiratory syncytial virus as a child. Even if an infection never made you sick, it would still be detected by this diagnostic method, called a serological test.
“We’re all like little loggers,” keeping track of viruses without realizing it, Mina said.
This type of immune system reading is different from a test that looks for an active viral infection. The immune system begins to produce antibodies one to two weeks after the onset of an infection, so serology is retrospective, looking at what you have caught. Also, closely related viruses can produce similar responses, eliciting antibodies that bind to the same types of viral proteins. This means that carefully designed tests are needed to distinguish the different coronavirus, for example.
But serology reveals things viral tests don’t tell Derek Cummings, a public health researcher at the University of Florida. With a large database of samples and clinical details, scientists can begin to see patterns emerge in how the immune system responds in a person without symptoms versus one struggling to clear the virus. Serology can also reveal before an epidemic begins whether a population has robust immunity to a given virus or whether it is dangerously weak.
“You want to understand what has happened in a population and how prepared that population is for future attacks from a particular pathogen,” Cummings said.
The approach could also detect events in the viral ecosystem that would otherwise go unnoticed, Cummings said. For example, the 2015 Zika outbreak was detected by Brazilian doctors who noticed a group of babies with abnormally small heads, born seven to nine months after their mother became infected. “A serological observatory could have known about it before that,” he declared.
Serological surveys are often small and difficult to set up because they require blood to be taken from volunteers. But for several years, Mina and her colleagues have been discussing the idea of a largely automated monitoring system using leftover samples from routine lab tests.
“If we had it in place in 2019, then when this virus hit the United States, we would have had immediate access to the data that would have allowed us to see it circulating in New York, for example, without doing anything. Different, ”Mina mentioned.
While the observatory was reportedly unable to identify the new coronavirus, it reportedly revealed an unusually high number of infections from the coronavirus family, including those that cause the common cold. It could also have shown that the new coronavirus interacted with patients’ immune systems in unexpected ways, leading to telltale markers in the blood.
This would have been a signal to begin genetic sequencing of patient samples to identify the culprit and may have provided reasons for shutting down the city earlier, Mina said. (Likewise, serology would not be able to detect the urgency of a new virus variant, such as contagious coronavirus variants that were discovered in Africa, South, and England before spreading elsewhere. For this, researchers must rely on standard genomic sequencing of virus test samples. )
A powerful investment
The observatory would require agreements with hospitals, blood banks, and other blood sources and a system for obtaining consent from patients and donors. It also faces the problem of funding, noted Alex Greninger, a virus expert at the University of Washington. Health insurance companies probably wouldn’t foot the bill, as doctors don’t typically use serologic tests to treat people.
Mina estimated that the observatory would cost around $ 100 million to start. He pointed out that, according to his calculations, the federal government has allocated more than double that amount to diagnostic company Ellume to produce enough rapid COVID tests to cover US demand for just a few days. A pathogen observatory, he said, is like a weather forecasting system that relies on a large number of buoys and sensors around the world, passively reporting events where and when they occur. These systems have been funded by government grants and are widely appreciated.
The predictive power of serology is worth the investment, said Jessica Metcalf, a public health researcher at Princeton and one of the observatory team members. A few years ago, she and her collaborators discovered that Madagascar’s immunity to measles was deficient in a small investigation. In fact, in 2018, an epidemic set in, killing more than 10,000 children.
Now, the half a million plasma samples in Mina’s freezers, collected by plasma donation company Octopharma from sites across the country last year, are starting to undergo serological testing focused on the novel coronavirus. Funded by a $ 2 million grant from Open Philanthropy. The tests had to wait for the researchers to set up a new robotic testing facility and process the samples, but they are now working on their first batches.
The team hopes to use this data to show how the Scientists Strive virus has spread across the United States, week after week, and how immunity to COVID has grown and changed. They also hope it will spark interest in using serology to shed light on many other viruses’ movements.
“The big idea is to show the world that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this kind of work,” Mina said. “We should be making this happen all the time. ”
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