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Can synthetic biology protect us from coronavirus? And the next one?
The National Institutes of Health hopes synthetic biology can engineer vaccines that outperform nature.
- The first coronavirus vaccines will enter Phase 2 testing soon but won't be ready for another 18 months.
- Synthetic biology may offer a "universal coronavirus vaccine" that can be quickly modified to combat future mutated forms.
- Despite promising lab tests, synthetic vaccines remain speculative; we'll need to live with COVID-19 during the interim.
The world was not prepared for coronavirus. Despite the clarion calls that were the SARS and MERS outbreaks and early warnings from doctors, governments had neither the policies nor equipment in place to impede COVID-19's spread from a Chinese animal market.
The United States' strategy was to impose a medical bubble of travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines. "We have contained this. I won't say airtight but pretty close to airtight," White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said last month—despite contrary warnings from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials.
At that time, there were a handful of known cases. As of March 11, more than 1,000 people across 38 states have tested positive for the disease.
For many hope lies in the development of a vaccine, but while the first vaccines should enter Phase 2 testing by summer, that leaves an efficacy-tested product months away. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, estimates the first vaccines won't be ready for "a year to a year-and-a-half."
As companies hurry to test potential vaccines, the National Institute of Health (NIH) is hoping new bio-engineering techniques to help us restrain coronavirus—and its next mutation, too.
Engineering a solution
A synthetic biology research laboratory at NASA Ames.
As reported by Sharon Begley in STAT, NIH is looking toward synthetic biology for the next advancement in vaccination development. This research is funded, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's $100 million commitment to strengthening global "detection, isolation, and treatment efforts" directed at COVID-19.
In synthetic biology, scientists re-engineer organisms to sport new abilities or biological purposes. They do this by stitching together strands of DNA and inserting them into an organism's genome. This artisanal DNA can come from other organisms or be a completely original strand.
Scientists begin the process by engineering nanoparticles out of proteins. Using a computational algorithm, they experiment with a million variants to discover the optimal structure. This structure not only allows the nanoparticle to house the viral antigens, but arranges those antigens for maximal arousal of the body's immune response.
After lab-crafting DNA to code for the nanoparticle, the scientists place it in E. coli bacteria. Once the bacteria begin manufacturing the desired protein, it is extracted, purified, and studded with viral antigens.
"If tests in lab animals of the first such nanoparticle vaccine are any indication, it should be more potent than either old-fashioned viral vaccines like those for influenza or the viral antigens on their own (without the nanoparticle)," Begley writes.
According to Lynda Stuart, immunologist and physician who directs the Gates Foundation's vaccine research, synbio vaccines may have advantages beyond potency. The increased immune response could eliminate the need for adjuvants (additives used to boost said response). They could reduce the need for refrigeration, making deployment to poor countries easier. And they could be designed to house antigens from several viruses, making one vaccine capable of fighting multiple diseases.
The ability to take past viral designs and quickly retrofit them to new, mutated forms of a virus could also reduce the development time for new, necessary vaccines.
"We may need an approach that can get you millions and even billions of doses," Stuart told STAT.
Synbio vaccines are still in the preliminary phases, and more traditional vaccines won't be available for months. During the interim, the virus will continue to spread, and its novelty means we'll need to encounter it before our bodies can build immunity. Many will become sick, but few will develop serious illness.
As Nancy Messonnier, director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, notes in the video above, the disease affects older adults most seriously. The greatest risk is faced by people over the age of 80 and those with underlying health conditions.
Without a vaccine to curb its spread, it will be up to us to do what we can to maintain our health and prevent spreading the disease.
Wash your hands. Americans are awful when it comes to hand hygiene, but it's one of the best ways to prevent the spread of disease. Wet your hands with warm water, lather them with soap, and scrub them all over for 20 seconds. Rinse your hands, and finish with a paper towel or air dry.
Hand sanitizers can work, but they have to be rubbed in for 20 seconds and contain at least 60 percent alcohol. You should also sanitize frequent-contact surfaces like smartphone screens.
Stay home if you are sick. It's good advice in general as your fellow students and coworkers don't need you to share your lung grimes. But it's especially important to do so if you have coronavirus symptoms. If your symptoms become serious, contact a doctor for instructions and the next steps.
Limit potential exposure. If you are at higher risk, you'll want to avoid crowds as much as possible, especially in poorly ventilated places. You should also avoid non-essential plane travel.
Have supplies on hand. You don't need a doomsday prepper's supply, but make sure you have a two-week supply of the essentials on-hand in case you get sick and have to stay in. If you have an underlining medical condition, ensure you have enough medication on hand.
Face masks. If you are healthy, you likely do not need to wear a face mask for protection. The CDC advises face mask use for people who have COVID-19, are showing symptoms, and do so under the recommendation of a healthcare professional as it may prevent them from spreading the disease to others. Wearing a face mask needlessly limits the necessary supply available to health and care providers.
Stay informed. Visit the CDC's coronavirus website for situation updates and information on the virus. Don't rely on hearsay or social media to inform you about local conditions. Monitor your state and local health department websites instead for accurate, reliable information.
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An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.