How Marvellous Melbourne’s scientists led the COVID fight


It is just one of many contributions Melbourne has made to the global fight against COVID-19.

Our southern city is Australia’s scientific powerhouse – it typically captures about half of all government research funds.

The city has a huge concentration of scientists; perhaps 10,000 researchers of different stripes, all working within walking distance of each other in the sprawl of research institutes in Parkville. When crisis loomed, they were ready.

“I’m biased. But I think Melbourne has made an outsized contribution. We have punched above our weight,” said Professor Shitij Kapur, dean of health sciences at the University of Melbourne.

We have led the way on basic research to understand what the virus does to our bodies. We have started work on promising new cures. And our epidemiologists have worked closely with government at every level, ensuring our public health response was among the very best in the world.

Professor George Lovrecz and Mylinh La at CSIRO’s vaccine manufacturing plant in Clayton. They hold a bottle filled with cells that will be used to produce protein for the vaccine. Behind them is a machine that will eventually be used to purify the vaccine.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Grown in goo

The University of Queensland’s ‘molecular clamp’ vaccine is filled with tiny proteins identical in shape to the spike protein SARS-CoV-2 uses to bind and enter human cells.

How do you make a protein? You grow it – in a vat.

All cells have tiny protein factories in them. Feed in genetic code and the factory makes a protein.

After the UQ team perfected the shape of their spike-mimic, they put that genetic code into a line of Chinese hamster cells, and sent the tiny, precious vial down to Professor Nilsson’s team.

At Clayton, the team grew that tiny seed into a huge batch of cells pumping out proteins.

But making enough vaccine to immunise millions of people requires those cells to be pumping out protein at peak production. Professor Nilsson’s team carefully tweaked the nutrient levels over and over, trying to get the mix right – while also racing against the clock, as cases and deaths piled up.

They delivered about 10,000 doses needed for the first patients to be injected at the University of Queensland in July.

“It’s an amazing feeling. You realise you’re contributing in real time to a process that could make a huge difference to many, many people’s lives,” she said.

The backup plan

Announcements from Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca that their vaccines appear effective is good news.

But these vaccine developers are understandably focused on speed. Many scientists suspect these first generation vaccines will be good enough to save lives, but not good enough to end the pandemic altogether.

They think we’re going to need second-generation vaccines. That’s what Professor Colin Pouton and his Monash University team are working on.

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UQ’s vaccine mimics the entire spike of SARS-CoV-2. Unfortunately, there are several other coronaviruses that infect humans (they typically cause colds). Their spikes look a lot like CoV-2s.

Professor Pouton suspects the immune systems of people who have been infected with a common coronavirus are likely to be making antibodies for those viruses – rather than COV-2.

“Young people are not suffering. Old people generally do suffer, and some are getting really seriously ill and dying. You have to figure out what is going on there,” said Professor Pouton. “We think older people have seen lots of coronaviruses in the past.

Professor Pouton’s solution: a vaccine that uses just the very tip of CoV-2’s spike, so there is no chance of crossed immune wires.

If it works, it could be administered to the elderly as a second-generation vaccine. They hope to begin clinical trials within six months.

Making a bank

None of these projects are possible without the basic science that unpicks exactly how COVID-19 invades our cells.

For much of that, we have Dr Irani Thevarajan’s Doherty Institute team to thank.

For years, they had been worried about a key pandemic problem: how do you fight a virus you know nothing about?

The key, they realised, was immediately getting top-quality data. To that end, they built a research project that could be activated as soon as a pandemic hit.

In January, when word reached our shores about a mysterious pandemic in Wuhan, they hit the button.

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Their study, called SETREP-ID, managed to capture one of the first people in Australia with the virus, back before it even had a name.

Their study is about depth not breadth. They have tracked the course of COVID-19 through a person’s body in blood, stool and urine samples and close studies of antibody responses.

All those samples will be kept in a biobank, and the patients will be tracked for the next six months to monitor any long-term changes.

It’s unglamorous but vital work; some 16 research projects are using their data right now, and they helped publish the first-ever study of the immune response to COVID-19 in February – a big deal.

“I think it was a key contribution, when no one really had an understanding of this particular virus,” said Dr Thevarajan. “There were no other platforms in the country that were able to do this.”

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Asia’s Rising Scientists: Manik Varma


Manik Varma
Partner Researcher
Microsoft Research India
India

AsianScientist (Nov. 26, 2020) – Imagine this: what if you suddenly woke up with the superpower to answer questions with billions of choices in milliseconds? Would you try to see who among the world’s population should first receive the potential COVID-19 vaccine? Would you try to forecast which grocery or retail items you’d likely need even before you’ve checked your room and cabinet? Or would you want to predict the next words uttered by your favorite public figure?

For more than half a century, scientists have been trying to build machine learning algorithms to answer such multiple-choice questions with a high level of uncertainty. Unfortunately, despite decades of progress, state-of-the-art algorithms could only pick the correct subset of answers for questions with just thousands of choices. Enter Dr. Manik Varma, a Partner Researcher at Microsoft Research India.

In 2013, Varma and his colleagues developed an algorithm that could answer queries with millions of choices—kickstarting a new field of machine learning known as extreme classification in the process. The secret lies in quickly eliminating the vast majority of irrelevant options, allowing the algorithm to focus on the few hundred remaining choices. Among numerous other applications, extreme classification has been used to generate increasingly sophisticated web searches, more tailored advertising and personalized recommendations.

Since then, Varma has gone even bigger. His team’s award-winning Slice algorithm, for instance, can process problems with 100 million choices in mere milliseconds. For his pioneering contributions to engineering, Varma received the 2019 Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, an annual award given in India for notable science research. In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Varma recounts his early beginnings in the field of machine learning and reveals his hopes for his research in the years to come.

  1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet?

    I work on projects at the extremes of machine learning—ranging from deploying learning algorithms on chips smaller than a grain of rice to answering multiple choice questions with millions or billions of choices in milliseconds.

  2. Describe the research project that you are proudest of.

    We started the area of extreme classification which studies multiple choice questions with an extremely large number of choices. It brought in new research problems that the classification community hadn’t been thinking about traditionally. It has found application in diverse areas including computer vision, natural language processing, information retrieval, etc. and has opened a new paradigm for key industrial applications in web search, computational advertising and recommender systems. Today, extreme classifiers are making billions of predictions daily, are helping millions of people be more efficient and are generating millions of additional dollars of revenue for many businesses worldwide.

  3. What do you hope your research will accomplish in the next decade?

    I hope that our algorithms will one day reach a level where the product is delivered to your doorstep just as you realize you need it. Our algorithms should anticipate your requirements and provide you the necessary information at just the right time

  4. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

    I’ve been very fortunate to have found exceptional mentors in my family (my parents and uncle), my teachers (Andrew Zisserman at The University of Oxford and David Forsyth & Jitendra Malik at University of California at Berkeley) and my managers at Microsoft (P. Anandan and Sriram Rajamani).

    My field of study has shifted a lot over the years. It was Anandan who encouraged me to switch from computer vision to machine learning more than a decade ago. For the last five years, Sriram has been mentoring and supporting me and encouraging me to try out applications in diverse areas. Recently, my students and collaborators have motivated me to keep exploring new fields, learning new things and building solutions that benefit people.

    Dr. Manik Varma at the Microsoft Research Lab in Bengaluru, India. Photo credit: Manik Varma

  5. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?

    All sources of adversity have turned out to be opportunities in the long run. Having a limited budget forced us to improve our algorithms so that they could run on a single core of a standard machine rather than on huge clusters, and not having all the skills in my team sparked hugely beneficial collaborations with other teams.

  6. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?

    Some of these challenges include making research relevant to society, communicating it to the layperson, ensuring quality, encouraging students to pursue their dreams rather than going after the highest paying jobs, strengthening undergraduate pipelines, encouraging researchers to take risks, modifying the system to allow for radically novel ideas to propagate faster, tackling integrity, fairness, ethics and inclusion, etc. Experts would know how to tackle these challenges better than me, but I suspect years of experimentation might be required.

  7. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

    I often fantasize about becoming a grand master at chicken chess but, realistically speaking, I don’t think I would ever have amounted to much.

  8. What do you do outside of work to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?

    I used to love reading but had to give it up as I lost my eyesight. However, audiobooks have opened up a whole new world for me. I also like watching plays, going on history walks, discovering new food, swimming with my kids, travelling with my wife and learning about literature from my parents. I have also been training to be a Dungeons and Dragons’ dungeon master during the COVID lockdown.

  9. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

    I’d love to see a world where everyone can instantly get accurate, verified and reliable information in a form that is accessible to them while respecting security and privacy concerns.

  10. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

    Something that has worked well for me has been to spend a significant amount of time identifying the right problem to solve. I am often tempted to solve problems in my comfort zone. However, I have found it more fun and rewarding to tackle impactful rather than easy problems.

    In Asia, particularly, we have access to many problems which, if solved, can benefit millions of people or save millions of lives or generate millions of dollars in revenue or even put a person on Mars. However, challenging problems like these are also complex and risky. So, I try to have a long time horizon, try to put together a team with the necessary skills and structure the project to mitigate risk. Instead of stopping at the publication stage, I try to solve the problem end-to-end and go through multiple rounds of deploying the solution in the real world to maximize its benefit to people.

    I am often afraid of failure but have come to realize that I have learnt more from my mistakes than from my successes.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Manik Varma.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.


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Biofluorescent Australian mammals and marsupials take scientists by surprise in accidental discovery


Following the accidental discovery by scientists in the United States that platypuses glow under UV light, further tests by Australian scientists show other mammals and marsupials also glow.

Biofluorescence has long been known to occur in some insects and sea creatures, but it was unknown that it occurred in other Australian mammals until earlier this month, when scientists at the Western Australian Museum rushed to check their specimen drawers to factcheck the US report.

The findings have Australian scientists working together to confirm the findings of biofluorescence in these animals, and to start looking for a reason that it may occur.

Paula Anich is a North America squirrel researcher from the Center for Science and the Environment, Northland College in the USA, and co-author of the paper about biofluorescent platypuses that was published in the journal Mammalia.

“It’s hard to resist a platypus,” Dr Anich said.

She was alerted to a pink glow that squirrels exude under UV light by a colleague.

Platypuses have been found to glow green under UV light.(Supplied: Mammalia)

Dr Anich then decided to check some of the other specimens she had to hand.

“We pulled the monotreme [egg-laying mammals like platypuses] drawer and the platypuses fluoresced, and it was amazing,” she told ABC Radio Hobart.

It was also reported by Linda Reinhold, a zoologist and amateur mycologist, in the Autumn/Winter 2020 edition of the Queensland Mycologist that a roadkill specimen of platypus in Queensland was seen to glow under UV light.

Photo of a white man in a lab coat with specimen jars
Kenny Travouillon, curator at the WA Museum, rushed to check specimens under UV light when he heard about the US findings.(Supplied: Kenny Travouillon)

More glow in the dark surprises

Palaeontologist and curator of Mammalogy at the Western Australian Museum, Kenny Travouillon, heard about the article and borrowed a UV light from that the arachnology department of the museum.

“We borrowed it and turned off the lights in the collection and looked around for what was glowing and not glowing,” Dr Travouillon said.

“The first one we checked was the platypus obviously.

Then they turned their light on other specimens in their collection.

Photograph of a dead bilby glowing under UV light. It has a tag on its foot.
A bilby specimen stored at the Western Australian Museum under UV light.(Supplied: Western Australian Museum)

“We tried on marsupial moles and wombats,” Dr Travouillon said.

“We did on the carnivorous marsupials and they did not glow at all.

“It probably makes sense, because if their prey can see UV light, they would not be able to hide from them.”

Why do they glow?

Sarah Munks is an adjunct senior researcher with the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Tasmania and an expert in platypuses.

Given that the sample size of three platypus that had been preserved in a drawer in the Northern Hemisphere for decades is not enough for scientists to confirm that glowing fur is endemic to platypuses, she was initially sceptical.

“When I first read it, I thought ‘mmm, they were just sad-looking museum specimens’.

“A colleague suggested that they could be covered in urine.”

Woman in a beanie with a headtorch, holds a female platypus
Dr Sarah Munks checks a platypus for milk.(Supplied: Sarah Munks)

Benefits to glowing in the dark

Dr Anich hoped the release of the paper would get on the radar of Australian platypus experts.

“I think they are the scientists and wildlife biologists best placed to figure it out,” she said.

“It is possible that it is actually taking the ultraviolet light that is more prevalent at dusk and dawn, making it kind of disappear so that any predators that are keying in on ultraviolet light can’t see the platypus because it is kind of cloaking itself.”

Dr Munks was cautious.

“Their sample size was tiny — and I always like to put in a plug for more research,” she said.

“Is this just a way they can find each other? I don’t think so, platypuses have so many other ways of finding their way around.

“All the work done on other species suggests that it is an ancient form of camouflage.

Dr Travouillon suggests that “the benefit is probably so they can see their species from a distance, and they can approach them because they know that it is safe to go towards that animal.”

Platypus diving under water.
It is hoped Australian platypus experts might have some more insight into the mysterious new findings.(Parks Tasmania: Dave Watts)

New collaborations and concern for funding

“It’s incredible seeing it zipping around the researchers,” said Dr Munks, referring to the journal article.

Dr Travouillon posted photos on Twitter of the other animals they tested under UV light, including an echidna, wombats, and bilbies.

“As soon as we posted the pictures, I got contacted from a researcher at Curtin University who works on forensic light and they are interested to do more research,” he said.

“He came with some of his equipment last week and we tested it on some of the specimens and it shows that it is not just UV light but some other lights too.

“If it’s quirky and interesting like that it will always get people’s attention.”



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Two From Asia Win UNESCO’s Man And The Biosphere Young Scientists Awards



AsianScientist (Nov. 24, 2020) – Two early-career researchers from Asia—Dr. Radisti Praptiwi and Dr. Laure de Ville D’Avray—have received the 2020 Young Scientist Awards from UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program. The selection was announced during the MAB Council’s annual meeting, held virtually on 27 and 28 October 2020.

As the world inches closer towards 2030, much attention has been focused on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the United Nations. Of the 17 SDGs, Life on Land and Life Below Water respectively focus on the sustainable use of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. And with good reason: every year, 13 million hectares of forest are lost. Meanwhile, around 13,000 pieces of plastic litter can be found on every square kilometer of our oceans.

Given the impacts of human activity on our surroundings, the MAB program aims to safeguard already-vulnerable ecosystems while improving human livelihoods through innovative approaches to economic development.

One of the many ways MAB achieves its goals is through the Young Scientists Awards, which has recognized early-career researchers carrying out projects on ecosystems, natural resources and biodiversity since 1989. Up to US$5,000 is granted to promising researchers each year to support their work.

This year, six young scientists received the award. Two of the winners come from Asia: Praptiwi and de Ville D’Avray, who hail from Indonesia and the Philippines, respectively. The two were recognized for their research undertaken at biosphere reserves designated by the MAB. Spanning over 700 sites in 124 countries, these reserves are essentially test beds for sustainable development.

For instance, Praptiwi’s project revolves around understanding the impact of climate change in tropical marine areas of Indonesia’s Taka Bonerate Kepulauan Selayar biosphere reserve. Specifically, her work explores climate change’s effects on cultural ecosystem services—activities that include tourism and traditional customs.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines’ Palawan biosphere reserve, de Ville d’Avray studies the influence of artificial reefs on fish communities and their potential socio-economic benefits. As suggested by its name, artificial reefs are manmade structures installed by marine conservationists to mimic natural reefs. Such artificial reefs are meant to be colonized by marine flora and fauna, promoting biodiversity.

Other recipients of the award come from Nigeria, Cuba and Romania. Nominations for the 2021 MAB Young Scientists Awards are now open and are due to close on 15 January 2021.
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Source: UNESCO; Illustration: Oi Keat Lam/Asian Scientist Magazine
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.


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You’re not crazy—you really hunger for social contact, scientists say


If you’re feeling lonely this Thanksgiving, and wishing for human contact, don’t dismiss what your head and heart are telling you.

Those cravings aren’t just cabin fever—the human body hungers for companionship in much the way we hunger for food, according to a new study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The study may just shed some light into the phenomenon of lockdown fatigue—that is, why, for example, so many Americans are willing to ignore guidelines from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention to stay at home this holiday season, or why anti-lockdown protests continue to bloom from Berlin to Columbus, Ohio. One possible reason? Humans may have this innate biological need to see each other. And restrictions, no matter how well intentioned, are messing with it.

The MIT study, conducted mostly on college-age volunteers in 2018 and 2019—before the pandemic—found that 10 hours without any social contact, for many people, led to a kind of psychological and physical craving that’s on the same level of intensity as 10 waking hours without food.

“People who are forced to be isolated crave social interactions similarly to the way a hungry person craves food,” said Rebecca Saxe, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, and the senior author of the study, said in a release.

“Our finding fits the intuitive idea that positive social interactions are a basic human need, and acute loneliness is an aversive state that motivates people to repair what is lacking, similar to hunger.”

Ten hours of hunger, ten hours alone

The study was inspired by previous research that showed that the function of a cluster of neurons in mice’s brains is linked to the need for social interaction. The researchers knew that humans get agitated when confronted with a lack of social contact—but the neurological basis for those emotions wasn’t well known before, they said.

The study got a group of volunteers to undergo two separate stretches of observation: 10 hours without any social contact—including through their phones—and, on another day, 10 hours without food. At the end of both periods, the volunteers underwent MRI scans and were simultaneously shown images: in the first case, photos of people happily interacting; in the second, plates of food. Each time, researchers measured the brain activity of the subjects.

If fasting for hours sounds unpleasant, the researchers made sure the experience of being alone was well and truly miserable.

“There were a whole bunch of interventions we used to make sure that it would really feel strange and different and isolated,” said Saxe. “They had to let us know when they were going to the bathroom so we could make sure it was empty. We delivered food to the door and then texted them when it was there so they could go get it. They really were not allowed to see people.”

As predicted, the area of the brain impacted—the substantia nigra—was the same when the subject was derived of food and derived of human contact. Both experiences also lit up other, different parts of the brain, the researchers said—an area for further study.

The social butterfly effect

The researchers also noted that, when it comes to loneliness, previous experience may make you less vulnerable to such feelings of craving.

People who reported feeling isolated long before the study showed a more limited reaction to the 10 hours completely on their own, while people who reported active social lives—the social butterflies—felt much more distressed.

“For people who reported that their lives were really full of satisfying social interactions, this intervention had a bigger effect on their brains and on their self-reports,” said Saxe.

Before the pandemic, of course, the study offered a chance to open a door to the long term affects of isolation and loneliness—which have been linked to lower health outcomes. But this year, the experience of at least physical isolation was suddenly broadly felt, across countries and cultures, often for months at a time through imposed COVID lockdown measures.

Global lockdowns have offered a further window into just how much we need each other. Although many of us long ago concluded the answer to that one: an awful lot.

As for further areas of research, the researchers pointed to the impact of isolation on behavior, the difference based on age—and whether all those endless video calls actually help.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

  • Where does Biden stand on another $1,200 stimulus check?
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  • China wants to make its own chips. 2 failures in 1 week show how hard that will be
  • Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer launches her first startup
  • The hydrogen economy: Hyped for years, the most abundant element in the universe is finally having its moment



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UK scientists test cocktail of antibody drugs for people with less severe COVID symptoms


Scientists in the UK are starting trials of a cocktail of antibody drugs that they hope will help treat people with symptoms of COVID-19. The mix, developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, is to be given to people who have the infection and are at high risk. Experts say demand is expected to outstrip supply.

Dr. Rafael Mañez Mendiluce is the Director of the Intensive Care Department at the University Hospital in Barcelona. He says as there are no treatments, any new therapies for COVID-19 patients will be very welcome.

Watch Euronews’ interview with Dr. Rafael Mañez Mendiluce in the media player above.



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Thousands have died prematurely in US due to wildfire pollution, say scientists | US News


Researchers say thousands of people have died prematurely as a result of the record-breaking wildfires that have swept America’s west this autumn.

An unprecedented number of major fires have burned millions of acres in California, Oregon and Washington this year, throwing up choking smoke and sending air pollution across the country and beyond.

At times, air quality readings have registered off the charts.

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Oregon town covered in fire retardant

Researchers at Stanford University in California say spikes in the sort of particulate pollution caused by wood smoke are likely to have increased hospitalisations and deaths among vulnerable populations.

They estimate there were between 1,200 and 3,000 excess deaths in California alone in one 40-day period in the late summer.

It confirms what many scientists around the world believe is the real and growing threat from intensifying wildfire seasons.

“There’s a fair amount of evidence worldwide that air pollution is a significant risk factor for early death,” said Ed Avol, a professor of clinical preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

More from California Wildfires

“So, the fact that we have these intense smoke episodes and that it pushes some susceptible people over the edge is not surprising at all.”

For him, the increasing number and intensity of wildfires is further evidence of the impact of climate change and the need for urgent action.

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San Francisco sky turned orange by wildfires

Selene Zazueta does not need science to tell her how bad the fires have been. For her daughters, Emma and Isabella, their asthma and allergies have been almost unbearable this year.

“It is like an oven and you really feel the dirty air,” said Selene.

The family live in a part of Long Beach in California that was already known as “asthma alley”. The fires have made it worse: “It has been overwhelming and very scary.”

Selene said it was “heartbreaking” to see her children not be able to enjoy life, but added: “Even children without asthma are suffering, this air quality is affecting every child.”

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Trump on wildfires: ‘I don’t think science knows’

This year’s fires have seen a wave of new air quality apps launched for the public to track the particulate count in their neighbourhoods.

Americans have also seen their president continue to deny the science on wildfires, telling a meeting of emergency responders in October that “I don’t think science knows actually”. His successor Joe Biden has promised an ambitious climate change agenda.

Perversely, the pandemic has probably eased the problems for many children by keeping them indoors and away from effects of the smoke. Doctors say it will be short-term relief with a future of more toxins.

Paediatrician Dr Elisa Nicholas, who runs The Children’s Clinic and campaigns to highlight the risks of air pollution, said: “It is hard to accept the thought of having children exposed to more pollutants.

“We have worked really hard on air quality and to have a new type of air pollution coming in is heartbreaking. To me it is a backward step and that makes me sad.”



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Protein-based COVID vaccine candidates more suitable for India, scientists say


New Delhi: As the world moves into the next stage of COVID-19 management and several vaccine candidates approach end-stage trials, scientists say a critical consideration for India is storage temperature and a protein-based preventive might therefore work best for the country.

The decision on procuring the right COVID-19 vaccine depends on multiple factors, including safety, price and ease of deployment, the scientists added, pitching for a preventive like the one being developed by US firm Novavax that can be stored at higher temperatures rather than those developed from mRNA or viral vectors.

 

That would potentially rule out the three vaccine candidates that have shown over 90 per cent efficiency over the last few days — Pfizer-BioNtech with 90 per cent efficacy in Phase 3 trial interim results, Sputnik V with 92 per cent and Moderna with 94.5 per cent – raising hopes across the globe that a preventive is on the horizon.

While none of them are protein-based, the one from US biotechnology company Moderna is perhaps the most suitable for Indian conditions because it doesn’t need the extreme low temperatures that the others do.

 

Immunologist Satyajit Rath explained that the vaccine candidates by US-backed Pfizer-BioNTech and Russia’s Sputnik V need much lower storage temperature conditions compared to protein-based vaccine candidates like the one developed by Novavax.  

Vaccines generate immunity by mimicking a milder form of an infection and helping the immune system “remember” the pathogen. So they contain some part of an infectious agent that is capable of generating an immune response, such as the viral genetic material, its RNA or DNA, or the proteins in the virus which interact with human cells.   

 

Some vaccines, called vectored-vaccines, use viruses compatible with the human body to deliver the DNA or RNA of the novel coronavirus inside our cells, which then instructs them to make SARS-CoV-2 proteins.   

“The mRNA, DNA and viral vector-based vaccines are generally likely to need much lower temperature storage conditions than protein-based vaccines so India should be seriously looking at protein-based vaccine candidates such as the Novavax or the Sanofi candidates, as well as other very interesting efforts in India,” Rath, from the National Institute of Immunology (NII) in New Delhi, told PTI.  

 

Currently in late-phase clinical development, the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine candidate, NVX-CoV2373, is a stable, prefusion protein that can be used to elicit robust neutralising antibody responses.  

On the other hand, the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine candidate is an mRNA-based design while Russia’s Sputnik V is an adenovirus vector-based one. On Monday, Moderna, also an mRNA vaccine, joined the list. 

Moderna said its new data showed its vaccine is stable at refrigerator temperatures for 30 days, much longer than the previous estimate of seven days, suggesting it may be better suited for Indian conditions than the Pfizer and Sputnik V candidates.  

 

For longer-term storage, it can be kept in freezers, though it doesn’t need the special facilities required for the Pfizer vaccine, the company said. 

“This (Moderna) vaccine can reportedly be stored in the refrigerator (unfrozen) for up to 30 days and at room temperature for up to 12 hours,” said virologist Shahid Jameel.  

He said temperatures in India and many other tropical regions of the world are very high during summer months and most vaccines will not survive transport and storage at these temperatures.  

“The Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine would be unsuitable for India due to its extreme cold storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius… once thawed it is reported to be viable only up to two days in the refrigerator,” Jameel, director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University in Haryana, told PTI.  

 

Rath added that the mRNA vaccine is completely impractical for India unless it can be shown that those conditions are substantially relaxable.  

“Also, Sputnik V typically needs low-temperature storage at minus 20 degrees Celsius, which is less impossible, but still quite hard to imagine Indian public healthcare delivery systems achieving them successfully unless it can be shown that those conditions are substantially relaxable,” Rath added.  

Raghavan Varadarajan, professor at Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science (IISc), agreed that the Pfizer vaccine requires very low temperature storage, and is unsuitable for widespread deployment in India.  

 

The experts concurred that from the current less-than-a-dozen frontrunners in Phase 3 trials, or the final stage, the Novavax one is the more suitable vaccine for India.  

“The vaccine with the best immunogenicity so far is the protein vaccine from Novavax but I don’t know what timelines, price etc. are going to be,” Vardarajan told PTI.  

Immunogenicity is the ability of a vaccine to provoke an immune response in the body.  

“The decision should be taken based on multiple factors including safety, efficacy,price, and ease of deployment. But even more, I would like to see the many protein-based vaccine candidates being developed in India and outside to mature. More in the future, I would like to see the maturation of some of the nasal vaccine delivery platforms being tried,” Vardarajan said.  

 

So what would be the best for India?

Jameel said India should go with vaccines that require storage and transport in liquid form — i.e. between 4 to 10 degrees Celsius — and not the ones that have to be kept frozen.  

“Several COVID-19 vaccines under testing do not require deep freezing. Good examples are the experimental vaccines of Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca with the University of Oxford and Sanofi-GSK, expected to be kept and shipped in an unfrozen state,” he said.  

Rath said India should be proactively encouraging of all potential COVID-19 vaccine candidates being developed in the country, adding that will provide multiple options, and will allow a much better negotiating position vis-a-vis any eventual SARS-CoV-2 vaccine purchase.  

 

Even if the storage is not factored in, Jameel argued, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would not be accessible to India in the near future for reasons of pre-approval purchase and cost.  

“USA’s Operation Warp Speed has promised Pfizer USD 1.95 billion to provide 100 million doses, which means its entire stock of 50 million doses for 2020 and another 50 million, possibly for Quarter 1 of 2021,” he said.  

“The USA has also provided USD 2.5 billion to Moderna to buy an undisclosed number of doses. Similarly, the UK, Japan and other developed economies have also pre-booked orders. Cost is the other factor with both RNA vaccines costing USD 20 to US 35 per dose,” Jameel added.

 

Five vaccine candidates are currently undergoing clinical trials in India. These include three that are in advanced stages of trials — the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate for which the Pune-based Serum Institute is conducting Phase 3 clinical trials, Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin which is also in Phase 3, and Russia’s Sputnik V which is expected to start Phase 2/3 trials next week.

The other two candidates are Cadila’s experimental vaccine that has almost completed Phase 2 and a candidate by Biological E that in Phase 1/2.

 

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Scientists pour cold water on ‘intriguing’ similarity between COVID-19 and 1918 flu


Despite early comparisons between COVID-19 and influenza, coronavirus was never going to be just another flu. It comes from a different family of viruses and it has proven far more pernicious and unpredictable. Even so, “cytokine storms,” where the immune system turns on the body by overreacting to a virus, were widely regarded as playing a critical role in 1918 influenza pandemic.

Not all historians and health professionals agree that cytokine storms led to as many deaths a century ago with the 1918 flu, and now a new study questions just how critical a factor they have been in COVID-related fatalities. So how large a part have these potentially fatal hyperinflammatory immune responses played in the coronavirus pandemic?


Fewer than 5% of the COVID-19 patients in a new study, including some of the sickest individuals, had the life-threatening, hyperinflammatory immune response known as a ‘cytokine storm.’

Some 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the 1918 Spanish flu. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide, with about 675,000 deaths occurring in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Saturday, 53.7 million people worldwide contracted COVID-19, with 1.3 million deaths, 245,453 of which were in the U.S.

These scientists aimed to find out. Most adults with moderate-to-severe COVID-19 have a suppressed viral immune response when compared to those suffering from influenza, according to research published Saturday by scientists at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo.

“Fewer than 5% of the COVID-19 patients in this study, including some of the sickest individuals, had the life-threatening, hyperinflammatory immune response known as cytokine storm syndrome. Cytokines are small proteins secreted by blood cells that help coordinate the immune response and trigger inflammation,” it found.

“We did identify a subset of COVID-19 patients with the broadly upregulated array of cytokines, which is a hallmark of cytokine storm,” said co-author Paul Thomas, Ph.D., a member of the St. Jude Department of Immunology. “But, overall, the average person with COVID-19 — even patients with moderate-to-severe disease — had less inflammation than the average person with flu.

He said patients would benefit from a rapid, reliable and inexpensive test to measure cytokines and identify those most likely to benefit from immunosuppressive treatment. “The findings suggest that treatment suppressing inflammation might only be effective in that minority of patients with the hyperinflammatory profile,” Thomas added.

Medical staff treat a patient with coronavirus in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center on Nov. 10, 2020 in Houston, Texas. COVID-19 infections are on the rise in Houston, Texas has surpassed 1 million cases.


Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Related: ‘Help is coming — and it’s coming soon’: Dr. Fauci outlines when COVID-19 vaccine will be available to all Americans

A hallmark of some viruses: A surge of immune cells and their activating compounds (known as “cytokines”) effectively turned the body against itself, led to an inflammation of the lungs, severe respiratory distress, leaving the body vulnerable to secondary bacterial pneumonia. It was seen as one reason why seemingly healthy people were so hard hit by the 1918 flu.

The research included 168 adults with COVID-19, 26 adults with influenza and 16 healthy volunteers. More than 90% of the COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, about half in the intensive care unit; 23% of those hospitalized died. More than half of flu patients were hospitalized, 35% in the ICU, and 8% of flu patients hospitalized died.

The study found that the antiviral-immune response was “profoundly suppressed” in COVID-19 patients versus flu patients. In most cases, COVID-19 was not caused by broad hyperinflammation from a cytokine storm, it said. (However, the researchers noted that lack of hyperinflammation in most of these coronavirus patients did not mean they had less disease.)

Doctors and members of the public, as of now, were spooked by how otherwise strong, healthy people who fell victim to the 1918 influenza, also known erroneously as the “Spanish flu.” Many historians today attribute that to the “cytokine storm,” the process where the immune system in healthy people reacts so strongly as to hurt the body.


In most cases, COVID-19 was not caused by hyperinflammation from a cytokine storm, a new study in Science Advances concluded. That was believed to be a feature of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

“There are two hypotheses to explain the 1918 strain’s high lethality: Cytokine storms and secondary bacterial infection,” according to a 2018 editorial in Nature. “In a cytokine storm, the body’s immune system overreacts, causing tissue and organ damage, and even death.” However, the editorial says it’s more likely that secondary bacterial infections played a bigger role.

The Nature editorial cites this “intriguing” 2008 paper published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases examined and reviewed over 8,400 tissue specimens from 1918–1919 influenza fatalities found that “the majority of deaths in the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic likely resulted directly from secondary bacterial pneumonia caused by common upper respiratory-tract bacteria.”

This may tally with the progress of that pandemic with the second wave hitting even harder. “The 1918 Spanish flu’s second wave was even more devastating than the first wave,” Ravina Kullar, an infectious-disease expert with the Infectious Diseases Society of America and adjunct faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles, told MarketWatch.

Though the 1918 pandemic is forever associated with Spain, this strain of H1N1 influenza was actually discovered earlier in Germany, France, the U.K. and the U.S. But similar to the Communist Party’s response to the first cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, last Decembert, World War I censorship buried or underplayed those earlier reports.

“It is essential to consider the deep connections between the Great War and the influenza pandemic not simply as concurrent or consecutive crises, but more deeply intertwined,” historian James Harris wrote about 1918. Members of the public were spooked by how otherwise strong, healthy people fell victim to the 1918 influenza. A “cytokine storm” seemed a likely explanation.

“There are two hypotheses to explain the 1918 strain’s high lethality: Cytokine storms and secondary bacterial infection,” according to a 2018 editorial in Nature.

Related:Joe Biden’s pandemic plan: Restore Obamacare, mandatory masks, paid sick leave and free COVID-19 tests

The most recent study released Saturday, published in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed open-access journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggests that a majority of COVID-19 patients are not candidates for treatment with steroids such as dexamethasone that, the researchers argue, can backfire in some patients.

Dexamethasone has, however, been found to be effective in treating severely-ill COVID-19 patients, according to three studies published in September in JAMA. Researchers reported in mid-June that low doses of dexamethasone played a significant role in helping to reduce deaths in hospitalized COVID-19 patients on ventilators by one-third.


The majority of COVID-19 patients are not candidates for treatment with steroids such as dexamethasone, the researchers argue, but it’s been effective in treating severely-ill patients.

And Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also credited dexamethasone with helping patients. “We know that dexamethasone clearly diminishes the death rate in people requiring mechanical ventilation and/or people who require high-flow oxygen,” Fauci said during an interview with the American Medical Association last weekend.

Other research finds that cytokine storms do remain a risk with older patients during the coronavirus pandemic. Genes in the body that appear to be a major factor giving SARS-CoV-2 access to the heart cells that become more active with age, according to a recent study in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology, and that can leave them more vulnerable to hyperinflammation.

The researchers found that “inflammation in older people can be more intense, causing organ damage,” Johns Hopkins University reported. “Lung tissue becomes less elastic over time, making respiratory diseases like COVID-19 a particular concern for older people.” Thus, a cytokine storm in those patients may promote the inflammation and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Furthermore, a September 2020 paper published in the peer-reviewed Frontiers in Immunology journal concluded: “Aberrant immune host response together with cytokine storm and lymphocytopenia [a disorder where your blood does not have enough white blood cells] followed by acute respiratory distress, are still relevant problems that affect the severity of COVID-19.”

One similarities abide between 1918 and 2020: During the 1918 flu, cities that implemented non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing and school closures tended to have better economic outcomes, Francis Yared, the global head of rates research at Deutsche Bank wrote in a recent note, adding, “There wasn’t such a big trade-off between economic activity and public health.”

In addition to BioNTech SE
BNTX,
+4.30%

and partner Pfizer
PFE,
+2.85%
,
which announced progress on Monday in a vaccine with 90% efficacy, AstraZeneca
AZN,
+0.95%

; Johnson & Johnson
JNJ,
+1.07%

; Merck & Co.
MERK,
-0.31%

; Moderna
MRNA,
+1.79%

; Sanofi
SAN,
+4.70%

; and GlaxoSmithKline
GSK,
+1.45%

are also working toward COVID-19 vaccines.

The BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine announcement helped U.S. stock indexes closed sharply higher Friday, notching a pair of fresh records, despite gloom over a spike in the viral outbreak in the U.S. and Europe. The Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA,
+1.37%

and S&P 500 index
SPX,
+1.36%

 both closed up 1.4%, and Nasdaq Composite Index
COMP,
+1.02%

 rose 1%.



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Deep-Sea Creature Found in Australian Waters for the First Time

squid

An Ecological Revolution Discovered

There is no denying that Australia is home to a variety of unique and wonderful creatures. What more could this country offer, marine ecology wise?  Well, scientists have found yet another peculiar inhabitant.

A bigfin squid is elusive with long, spaghetti-like strands that loiter only on deep oceans. It can live up to 4,500m below the sea surface. As their name suggests, the bigfin squid have big flippers that flap in a smooth, undulating motion. But they also sport thin, sticky threads, up to 8 meters long.

Five of these were spotted in the Great Australian Bight off the west SA coast for the first time. A team of researchers from CSIRO and Museums Victoria filmed these creatures some more than 3,000 meters below the ocean surface, in the Great Australian Bight.

As per published in Journal PLOS One, the latest sightings of the bigfin squid worldwide have been only around a dozen, therefore, finding these on Australian waters are uncanny.

Deborah Osterhage, a CSIRO marine ecologist and study lead author, recalled seeing her first bigfin squid, while she was scrolling through footage recorded by cameras towed behind the RV Investigator last 2015.

“As I was looking through the images and the videos, all of a sudden I saw this squid, and I immediately knew what it was because I’m a bit of a deep-sea geek,” Ms Osterhage revealed.

She added “as soon as I saw it, I thought, oh my goodness. I know what this is. And I knew it had never been seen in Australia before.”

Confirming that it was a bigfin squid they saw, Ms Osterhage sent the footage to Mike Vecchione, a zoologist from Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who scientifically named the bigfin squid family Magnapinnidae back in 1998.

He claimed the affirmation, however, what surprised him is that they all seemed to congregate in roughly the same place at the same time. This is a behaviour never before seen in the animals. The reason for this behaviour is still unclear.

Theories cited that it may be the currents in the area swirling them together in that location. Hence, it is predicted to gather in feeding and breeding. He described it as “it’s like going to a bar.”

Further researches found microscopic suckers covering those long spaghetti-like strands. This coming the specimens found on the stomach of a much larger animal washed up on beaches.

Dr Vecchione emphasized that these microscopic components make them incredibly sticky that if something bumps into it, it’ll stick like flypaper of a spider web.

Ms Osterhage, on the other hand, asserted that this rarely spotted creature was just one of nearly 900 species discovered on RV Investigator, alongside 300 species new to science. Does this mean another chapter of unfolding deep-sea secrets? We’ll soon find out.