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UK variant hunters lead global race to stay ahead of COVID

Associated Press

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UK variant hunters lead global race to stay ahead of COVID

On March 4, 2020, when there were just 84 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.K., professor Sharon Peacock recognized that the country needed to expand its capacity to analyze the genetic makeup of the virus.

The Cambridge University microbiologist understood that genomic sequencing would be crucial in tracking the disease, controlling outbreaks and developing vaccines. So she began working with colleagues around the country to put together a plan. Within a month, the government had provided 20 million pounds ($28 million) to fund their work.

The initiative helped make Britain a world leader in rapidly analyzing the genetic material from large numbers of COVID-19 infections, generating more than 40% of the genomic sequences identified to date. These days, their top priority is finding new variants that are more dangerous or resistant to vaccines, information that is critical to helping researchers modify the vaccines or develop new ones to combat the ever-changing virus.

“They’ve shown the world how you do this,” said Dr. Eric Topol, chair of innovative medicine at Scripps Research in San Diego, California.

Genomic sequencing is essentially the process of mapping the unique genetic makeup of individual organisms — in this case the virus that causes COVID-19. While the technique is used by researchers to study everything from cancer to outbreaks of food poisoning and the flu virus, this is the first time authorities are using it to provide real-time surveillance of a global pandemic.

Peacock, 62, heads Britain’s sequencing effort as executive director and chair of the COVID-19 UK Genomics Consortium, known as COG-UK, the group she helped create a year ago.

During the first week of this month, COG-UK sequenced 13,171 viruses, up from 260 during its first 12 days of operation in March last year.

Behind that growth is a system that links the science of genomic sequencing with the resources of Britain’s national health care system.

Positive COVID-19 tests from hospitals and community testing programs around the country are sent to a network of 17 laboratories, where scientists extract the genetic material from each swab and analyze it to identify that virus’ unique genetic code. The sequences are then cross-referenced with public health data to better understand how, where and why COVID-19 is spreading.

When mutations in the virus correspond with an otherwise unexplained increase in cases, that’s a clue that a new variant of concern is circulating.

The importance of genomic sequencing became obvious late last year as the number of new infections began to spike in southeastern England. When cases continued to rise despite tough local restrictions, public health officials went to work to find out why.

Combing through data from genome sequencing, scientists identified a new variant that included a number of mutations that made it easier for the virus to hop from one person to another. Armed with this information, Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a national lockdown, scrapping a strategy of local restrictions that had failed to contain the new variant.

The scientific sleuthing is crucial, but it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Researchers must sift through the genetic sequences from thousands of harmless variants to find the rare dangerous ones, Peacock said.

“It’s vital so that we can understand what variants are circulating, both in the United Kingdom and around the world, and therefore the implications of that on vaccine development and the way that we may have to adapt vaccines,” she said.

The effort is a worldwide collaboration, with more than 120 countries submitting sequences to GISAID, a data-sharing hub originally created to track influenza viruses.

Iceland, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark actually sequence a higher percentage of their COVID-19 cases than Britain, and Denmark does the work faster. But COG-UK’S work, combined with Britain’s size and high number of cases, have made it the world leader in sequencing COVID-19. The U.K. has submitted 379,294 of the almost 898,000 sequences in the GISAID database.

That work is paying dividends even for advanced countries like Denmark, where scientists use tools developed in Britain to analyze their own data, said Mads Albertsen, a professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University who is part of the country’s genomic sequencing effort.

“What the U.K. has just done by far best is the whole setup,” Albertsen said. “They have many more researchers and a much more professional structure around how to use the data.”

The U.S. is also trying to learn from Britain as the Biden administration reverses the anti-science policies of his predecessor that slowed the country’s sequencing efforts, said Topol. Representatives from COG-UK took part in a recent call with American researchers and the Rockefeller Foundation aimed at building capacity in the United States.

“To Peacock and the crew’s credit, they didn’t just stop at sequence,” Topol said. “They organized labs to do this other work, which is actually very intensive lab assessment. And then there’s the epidemiologic assessment, too. So everything has to fire on every cylinder, you know. It’s like a car with 12 cylinders. They all have to fire to move.”

The U.K.’s sequencing success was built on the foundation of ground-breaking genetic science in Britain, stretching back to the work of James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, who were credited with discovering the chemical structure of DNA. Other British scientists developed early sequencing techniques and later new technology that slashed the time and cost of sequencing.

That success attracted investment, such as the Wellcome Trust’s 1992 decision to create the Sanger Centre to help map the human genome, further expanding the pool of expertise in Britain. And Britain’s National Health Service provided a wealth of data for researchers to study.

Yet colleagues say Peacock personally deserves much of the credit for COG-UK’s success, though she prefers to highlight the work of others.

A ferociously good organizer, she glued the nation’s DNA detectives together through goodwill and chatrooms. Part of the trick was persuading eminent scientists to put aside their egos and academic rivalries to work together to help fight the pandemic, said Andrew Page, an expert in computer analysis of pathogen genomics who is working with COG-UK.

Peacock’s work on the project has earned her the moniker of variant-hunter-in-chief. But she prefers a simpler term.

“I consider myself, first and foremost, a scientist that’s doing their best to try and help both the population in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to control the pandemic,’’ she said. “Perhaps there’s a better phrase for that, but scientist will do it.”

LONDON (AP) — By DANICA KIRKA

MedTech

Sleep therapy device raises over $315.38 in crowdfunding

Karim Husami

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A UK-designed sleep therapy solution with global ambitions raised over $314.21 in the first week of a Crowdcube crowdfunding campaign.

SleepCogni, a portable device with data support for people suffering from insomnia, has so far attracted funds from 157 different investors in this latest fundraiser that combines venture capital investments and crowdfunding.

The firm’s latest lenders include Chasnay ​​Capital Investments, a new private investment fund founded by three former senior executives from General Electric (GE) Healthcare.

Co-founded by Sheffield-based entrepreneur Richard Mills, who has personally suffered from sleeping disorders, and Dutch chronobiologist and sleep expert, Dr Maan van de Werken, said the device allows users to self-manage their insomnia, a condition which affects one in three people across the world.

“Our successful crowdfund campaign builds on the momentum of last month’s FDA registration and the completion of clinical trials where SleepCogni achieved extraordinary results reducing clinical insomnia in just seven days.”

Reinaldo Garcia from Chasnay Capital Investments added: “We’re excited by our investment into SleepCogni for many reasons: its patented technology and clinically validated solution addresses an unmet need in the global sleep aid market, and the company is backed by an excellent team. As experienced global senior leaders with a proven track record, we can add value in this next exciting stage of the business and help SleepCogni scale on a global level.”

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Pfizer vaccine efficacy falls to 84% after 6 months

Hala Turk

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Pfizer and BioNTech published on Wednesday new data indicating their COVID-19 vaccine efficacy decline from 96 percent to 84 percent over six months.

These numbers are regarded as a big motivator to the drug makers currently developing a third “booster shot” to target the Indian Delta variant. 

The released data shows that the antibody levels are much higher against the Alpha coronavirus variant and the South African Beta variant, after a third dose.

Based on the figures, the efficacy “declined gradually” as it dropped from 96 percent during the first week to around two months after receiving a second jab. The dose’s effectiveness then plummeted to 83.7 percent four to six months later with an average drop of 6 percent over the last two months.

The findings may be considered by U.S. health authorities in deciding when the pair’s booster shot might be needed.

The data, which involved tests of 23 people, was published by Pfizer and has not been peer reviewed by the scientific community.

The announcement of the data and was released on the day of the company’s earnings call.

During the call, Mikael Dolsten chief scientific officers described the new data on a third dose of vaccine “encouraging.”

“Receiving a third dose more than six months after vaccination, when protection may be beginning to wane, was estimated to potentially boost the neutralizing antibody titers in participants in this study to up to 100 times higher post-dose three compared to pre-dose three,” Dolsten said in a statement.

Despite Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech’s booster shot plans, both Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a joint statement highlighting that Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this moment in time.

The statement noted that FDA, CDC, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are engaged in a science-based process to consider whether or when a booster might be necessary.

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Google delays return to office, mandates vaccines

Associated Press

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Google delays return to office, mandates vaccines

Google is postponing a return to the office for most workers until mid-October and rolling out a policy that will eventually require everyone to be vaccinated once its sprawling campuses are fully reopened.

The more highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is driving a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Google’s Wednesday announcement was shortly followed by Facebook, which also said it will make vaccines mandatory for U.S. employees who work in offices. Exceptions will be made for medical and other reasons.

In an email sent to Google’s more than 130,000 employees worldwide, CEO Sundar Pichai said the company is now aiming to have most of its workforce back to its offices beginning Oct. 18 instead of its previous target date of Sept. 1.

The decision also affects tens of thousands of contractors who Google intends to continue to pay while access to its campuses remains limited.

“This extension will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it,” Pichai wrote.

And Pichai disclosed that once offices are fully reopened, everyone working there will have to be vaccinated. The requirement will be first imposed at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters and other U.S. offices, before being extended to the more than 40 other countries where Google operates.

“This is the stuff that needs to be done, because otherwise we are endangering workers and their families,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and a former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. “It is not fair to parents to be expected to come back to work and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with unvaccinated people who could be carrying a potentially deadly virus.”

Because children under the age of 12 aren’t currently eligible to be vaccinated, parents can bring the virus home to them from the office if they are around unvaccinated colleagues, Wen said.

Various government agencies already have announced demands for all their employees to be vaccinated, but the corporate world so far has been taking a more measured approach, even though most lawyers believe the mandates are legal.

Delta and United airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are requiring their employees to disclose their vaccination status, but are not requiring staffers to be vaccinated.

Less than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated, based on periodic surveys by the research firm Gartner.

While other major technology companies may follow suit now that Google and Facebook have taken stands on vaccines, employers in other industries still may be reluctant, predicted Brian Kropp, chief of research for Gartner’s human resources practice.

“Google is seen as being such a different kind of company that I think it’s going to take one or two more big employers to do something similar in terms of becoming a game changer,” Kropp said.

Google’s vaccine mandate will be adjusted to adhere to the laws and regulations of each location, Pichai wrote, and exceptions will be made for medical and other “protected” reasons.

“Getting vaccinated is one of the most important ways to keep ourselves and our communities healthy in the months ahead,” Pichai explained.

Google’s decision to require employees working in the office to be vaccinated comes on the heels of similar moves affecting hundreds of thousands government workers in California and New York as part of stepped-up measures to fight the delta variant. President Joe Biden also is considering mandating all federal government workers be vaccinated.

The rapid rise in cases during the past month has prompted more public health officials to urge stricter measures to help overcome vaccine skepticism and misinformation.

The vaccine requirement rolling out in California next month covers more than 240,000 government employees. The city and county of San Francisco is also requiring its roughly 35,000 workers to be vaccinated or risk disciplinary action after the Food and Drug Administration approves one of the vaccines now being distributed under an emergency order.

It’s unclear how many of Google’s workers still haven’t been vaccinated. In his email, Pichai described the vaccination rate at the company as high.

Google’s decision to extend its remote-work follows a similar move by another technology powerhouse, Apple, which recently moved its return-to-office plans from September to October, too.

The delays by Apple and Google could influence other major employers to take similar precautions, given that the technology industry has been at the forefront of the shift to remote work triggered by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020, Google, Apple and many other prominent tech firms had been telling their employees to work from home. This marks the third time Google has pushed back the date for fully reopening its offices.

Google’s vaccine requirement also could embolden other employers to issue similar mandates to guard against outbreaks and minimize the need to wear masks in the office.

While most companies are planning to bring back their workers at least a few days a week, others in the tech industry have decided to let employees do their jobs from remote locations permanently.


SAN RAMON, Calif. (AP)

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