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These microscopic allies could help in the coronavirus fight

‘Good microbes’ and other tools to battle Covid-19 from the inside out

By Glenn McDonald

The pandemic of 2020 is a worldwide battle, but it will be decided in the microbial realm, through processes invisible to the naked eye. So, in the words of Steve Martin, let’s get small — and get to know some of humanity’s microscopic allies against the novel coronavirus.

Not all viruses are bad

Viruses are generally trouble. They reproduce by infecting healthy host cells, hijacking their chemical processes, and releasing more viral cells. But some viruses are actually beneficial in humans. Bacteriophages — often just called phages — are a kind of viral life form that targets and attacks certain strains of bacteria.

Scientists have long suspected that phages in human mucous membranes can fight off dangerous bacterial infections, and a growing body of research is adding to the evidence. This could put our body’s “good” viruses into the fight against COVID-19’s effects on the respiratory system. Since our lungs and airways are lined with mucus membranes, phages could help fight off the secondary bacterial infections that often follow the initial coronavirus attack — especially drug-resistant bacteria. Phages may have other useful functions, too: Scientists in Berlin recently developed synthetic phages that act as decoys, trapping flu viruses before they can latch onto healthy lung cells. Scientists are investigating this virus-versus-virus technique for potential application to COVID-19.

Working on a vaccine

The global effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine has accelerated significantly in just the last few days. Several biotech labs are now beginning or announcing human clinical trials. According to a recent New York Times report, more than two dozen companies are now in the game, from small university startups to giant multinational corporations like Johnson & Johnson.

Most vaccines use a weakened version of the virus to trigger an immune system response. But the Massachusetts pharmaceutical company Moderna is trying an unusual strategy against the coronavirus: it’s hoping to hotwire the process using designer genetic material.

If these little RNA information bombs work, researchers could make vaccines without ever having to introduce the target virus at all.

Moderna has been conducting human trials in Atlanta and Seattle of an experimental vaccine built around messenger RNA, which carries genetic instructions for cells to make proteins. The company has engineered messenger RNA that tricks human cells into making one of the coronavirus’ signature proteins, the spikes on its surface that form a crown-like shape. In response, the company says, the vaccinated person’s immune system produces antibodies that target the new protein. If and when the person ever catches the real coronavirus, the immune system would have an overwhelming advantage in the subsequent microbial struggle.

The new strategy is far from a sure thing. No vaccine built on messenger RNA has made it to market yet, though Moderna has several other such vaccines in development. But if these little RNA information bombs work, it’ll be invisible good news from the microscopic front: researchers could make vaccines without ever having to introduce the target virus at all, and it would save a great deal of time compared to traditional vaccine development.

Invisible math

A healthy human immune system is an incredibly powerful defender. It’s optimized, via millions of years of evolution, to ward off and destroy a wide range of attackers: viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi. The body’s most lethal weapons are white blood cells, which patrol in armies of millions. They’re embedded in every tissue and constantly circulating in the blood stream. Recent developments suggest that our white blood cells may be doing a lot better than we thought in the fight against COVID-19. Like, a lot better.

Numbers are being adjusted constantly, but a new surge of studies suggests that as many as 80 percent of people infected with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic. This could mean that our white blood cells have proven more effective than anticipated, subduing the infection without symptoms.

While that’s good news for the asymptomatic, it also means those people may be walking around unknowingly infecting others. More on that in a minute. But sticking strictly to the math, asymptomatic carriers could be a sign that our base assumptions on the total number of infected people are way off. Asymptomatic people have simply not been counted, except in isolated cases. Instead of three deaths per 100 infected, maybe it’s three deaths per 1,000 infected. If the denominator is changing that radically, it will shift all kinds of critical math, and critical decisions, down the line.

That invisible little abstract, the denominator, will play a crucial role in the coming weeks. If world governments can get widespread testing in place, we’ll be able to identify and isolate asymptomatic carriers, and we’ll have a much more accurate denominator for any given sample population.

Better denominators mean better math, better models, and better public health decisions. We’re going to have to reopen the economy at some point, and accurate data will determine how to safely make important changes this summer.

News we can use

One more small thing: Cytokines are microscopic proteins in the immune system that, during crisis, help to fight infection. If your body needs to fight off COVID-19, it needs help from the cytokines.

Since immune system function is very much on our collective mind these days, medical groups are providing all kinds of useful instruction. At the top of the list: Get more sleep. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation results in diminished production of cytokines. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to eight hours of sleep per day, including two 30-minute naps.

That’s right, the federally-funded National Sleep Foundation is asking you to do your part in the fight against coronavirus: Take a nap.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Colorized transmission electron microscope image of human white blood cells by Scott Camazine/Alamy Stock Photo

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