In the early dark days of the pandemic, when vaccines for what was then still sometimes referred to as the novel coronavirus were just a hope, researchers around the world started noticing a strange phenomenon.
A family member would come into the hospital with their loved one, who was struggling to breathe, or hooked up to a ventilator. But instead of also getting ill, this person seemed to have somehow dodged the virus altogether.
“Wait a minute. You live in the same house, in the same bed, you do everything together — he’s in the ICU and you’re not?” said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious-disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre.
“It became very clear that there were people who were exposed without getting severe disease,” Vinh recalls, but the “burning question” was, did they just not have symptoms, or had they escaped the infection? And if so, how?
The sixth wave has brought an explosion of COVID in some Ontario communities, including Toronto, with for many, more friends and family members getting sick than ever before in the pandemic.
But for every story of someone out with the virus, it seems like there’s another of someone who was spared, despite an exposure, or even living in the same house as multiple people who tested positive. If you’ve sidestepped COVID so far, you probably have vaccines, masks, and luck on your side, experts say.
There is, however, a very small group of people who appear to have innate immunity to the virus. There’s actually a precedent for this with other diseases, and Canadian researchers hope that unlocking the mystery of these “COVID resistors” can help develop more effective treatments and vaccines.
For the average person who hasn’t been infected, “it’s probably because you’re doing all the right public health things,” said Dawn Bowdish, the Canada research chair in aging and immunity and a professor of medicine at McMaster University.
There are people out there, though, probably less than one per cent of the population, Bowdish estimates, who are “highly exposed but seronegative” — health-care workers, for example, who were in COVID wards without proper masks before vaccines. Unlike individuals who got it and were asymptomatic, this elite group never develop antibodies in their blood to the virus (and scientists can tell whether those antibodies are from the disease or the vaccine), possessing some kind of natural immunity.
Bowdish is a co-lead on a large study about COVID in long-term care and hypothesizes that certain individuals may have developed immunity after repeated exposure to other seasonal coronaviruses that cause the common cold.
“When they’re exposed to SARS-CoV-2 they pull up that immune response, and sort of help protect themselves,” she said. “Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of us, we have to rely on our antibodies to do some of that work, whereas these other people use what we call T-cells” — another part of the immune system — that saw something very similar months or years ago and “jump into action and clear it out before it can even get started.”
McGill’s Vinh is the Canadian site lead for an international investigation looking at so-called “COVID resistors” that started as an effort to determine why some people get a severe bout of the disease. The team has identified about 700 people worldwide who qualify as exposed, test negative (with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or rapid tests) and never developed antibodies.
“We’re hunting for the genetic basis for why people are resistant to COVID infection,” said Vinh.
“If we can actually understand the molecular basis by which humans are naturally resistant to infection, that first step, when the virus tries to get into our cells, it can guide logically and rationally the development of therapies,” he added.
If you’re still convinced you’re one of this tiny elite group, Vinh and his team are still actively recruiting for their study.
In Britain, one research group has taken this a step further in what’s called a human challenge study, where they deliberately exposed 36 healthy, young unvaccinated adults with the virus. The main aim was to find the infectious dose necessary for infection, but they also found that “interestingly, 50 per cent of volunteers did not become infected,” said Dr. Andrew Catchpole, chief scientist at hVIVO, the company that ran the study, recently published in Nature Medicine, in partnership with Imperial College London and the British government. Although they never expected everyone to become infected when using low doses, they are currently studying the immune responses of those who did get infected vs those who did not in the hope that this could help find future drugs, he added in an email.
After two years of “shots in the dark” with treatments, the idea with this kind of work is to start something that’s already happening in humans and go from there, said Vinh.
“Some people say, well isn’t that a bit far-fetched, it is, except that’s what science is supposed to be, it’s supposed to be far-fetched,” he said.“But it’s not unproven.”
Hundreds of years ago when the plague was decimating Europe, there were cases of people who simply never got it, despite sometimes losing their entire families to the disease.
One theory is that people who survived the Black Death had a “specific mutation in one of their immune cells that made them less likely to support the bacteria that caused the plague,” said McMaster’s Bowdish. Another famous example is a group of sex workers in Nairobi, Kenya who were exposed to HIV many times but never became infected.
The message for most people who have avoided COVID so far, is don’t rely on this innate immunity as some kind of hidden superpower, Bowdish added. “But I think the inspiring part about finding people like this is that it kind of gives immunologists who are making vaccines a hint about what they should be targeting those for.”
Her colleagues at McMaster, for example, are working on developing an inhaled vaccine that would ideally provide broader immunity against multiple variants of COVID, rather than racing to develop a specific vaccine each time the virus mutates.
“In a perfect world, our vaccines would do exactly what these people naturally do, shut down that infection before it even got started and you’d never carry it and you’d never transmit it,” Bowdish said. “And we’d all be able to go back to our 2019 life.”
May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11
Bird flu continues to spread among domestic, wild animals throughout North America – Just The News
Strains of H5N1 avian influenza continue to pop up in birds around the country, with authorities reporting infections in both domestic and wild animals, including some wild mammals.
Officials in Washington state late this week confirmed two more outbreaks among flocks of birds there, stating that the infections were found in non-commercial backyard flocks of poultry.
Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, said the infection had been detected in three wild baby red foxes which subsequently died from the illness.
“At this point, it is unclear how the fox kits became infected, but it’s possible that they were exposed by consuming infected birds, such as waterfowl,” DNR Veterinarian Megan Moriarty told media.
Moriarty predicted additional infections in mammals in the state but said “they likely will be isolated cases.”
Another baby fox reportedly died in Minnesota after testing positive for avian flu, as did two in Ontario, Canada.
Three wild red foxes in Wisconsin also reportedly tested positive for the virus, with officials stating that they likely ate infected birds in the wild.
Wildlife rescue on Vancouver Island to limit visitors as avian flu continues to spread in B.C. – CBC.ca
A wildlife rescue in the Comox Valley, on Vancouver Island, is closing its visitor centre starting Monday due to the spread of avian flu in B.C.
The Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) Wildlife Rescue Centre, in Merville, B.C., announced it would be limiting visitors due to the risk that the disease poses to its captive birds, which include owls, eagles, and albino crows.
The decision comes after a small poultry flock in the Comox Valley tested positive for the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus last week, the first such case on Vancouver Island.
It is part of a rapidly-spreading outbreak of the flu throughout North America, with eight cases recorded in B.C. since April 13.
The concern is that a visitor could inadvertently bring the virus to the MARS centre on their vehicle, shoes or clothing.
“All of the species that we have in permanent captivity here … they are especially susceptible to the avian flu,” said Gylaine Andersen, manager of wildlife rehabilitation at MARS. “They are more likely to get severe symptoms, and actually die from the flu, than other types of animals.”
“It was a really difficult decision to close the visitor centre because we need the visitor centre to support the wildlife rehab program. But we just had to do it for the safety of our resident birds.”
The centre hosts two bald eagles and multiple owls that were previously rescued, as well as a red-tailed hawk. MARS also has two albino crows in residence named Nimpkish and Kokish.
Andersen said the temporary closure comes at the busiest time of year for the centre. It might struggle to weather the loss of income without public donations, she said.
“At this time of year, we’re getting lots of little baby birds and baby mammals at the hospital,” she told CBC News. “Over at the visitor centre, this is when we would have the most visitation from the public.”
The MARS wildlife hospital remains open, according to the rescue’s website, but Andersen said it would be “an expensive time of year” without funds for PPE and other medical equipment.
Andersen asked poultry owners to be extra vigilant as avian flu continues to spread in the province, and also reiterated a call to take down bird feeders to stop the spread among wild birds.
Avian flu cases have been confirmed in several other provinces, but no infections have been detected in humans.
Officials say the illness is not considered a significant concern for healthy people who are not in regular contact with infected birds.
Mental Health Issues Demand Resolution
Should those who hold public office show that they are of sound mind and body before taking office and during the years they serve? Are those bureaucrats who truly run our government ever tested or investigated for various mental health issues that could surely affect their performance as public employees?
Imagine what the mental state of public servants is like these days? Besides the Pandemics’ influence upon us all, these men and women are responsible for public service to their communities and nation. Man public employees are under vigorous scrutiny for their honesty and performance as employees, but what about their mental health challenges? Various municipal, State and Federal authorities make attempts to pinpoint an employee in need, someone needing assistance and direction in their professional and personal lives, but it is difficult to do. Privacy and union issues often stand in between the person in need and those who would assist them. Furthermore, many employees refuse to seek assistance, for reasons of professional survival. Say an employee has an important job where many decisions are made influencing the community at large(ie Police). That person needs assistance for some mental health issues but fears either losing their jobs or being declared problematic employees, slowing promotions or professional advancement. They clam up, interiorizing their pain, fear or distress.
Most public institutions will honestly admit they do not invest enough into mental health services for their fellow employees.
Our elected officials have much to hide away from their future or present-day electors. What if they have a skeleton in their closet? A colourful personal history, a criminal record, possible mental health or physical health issue. Issues that are allowed to be hidden from the transparency portfolio. If asked, tell the truth(as they see it), otherwise hide what can be hidden. Politicians performing their service to the community, are placed under a microscope by the electorate and media alike. This must be stressful to them and their families too. Are elected officials ever evaluated for mental health status ever, before being elected and during their service?
Do you think anyone with a criminal record or under investigation should be removed or barred from holding office or in a position of public trust? Is the trust of the electorate easily given? A public official or employee could mishandle a portfolio, or commit a crime while in public service. How often have you seen such an individual stand before the media’s camera, proclaiming their innocence or sorrow of their actions?
We have heard many public officials call for hugely needed investments in the treatment of mental health issues, yet these investments are either moving at a snail’s pace or not at all. Our military and police have been calling for assistance regarding their need for mental health programs for two decades with little happening. The government’s response is usually words, words, and more words with little accountable assistance given. Our government has enough revenue to invest in weapons for the police and military, building structures and community centers, highways and new computers, but when asked to invest in people, their employees and the electorate, it’s either too costly or they have not the funds.
The Police and Military: Have an immediate need for trained mental health professionals, therapists and therapy-recoup centers. If the government can send them into harm’s way, they are responsible to maintain their mental health.
Government Agencies: Due to privacy issues, the government should make allotments to their employees available to find and go to therapy. A healthy employee is a trusted effective one. The government should source mental health professionals for those who serve them. Furthermore, Governments and their agencies are responsible to encourage, initiate and plan for the training of these professionals. A well-paid professional will make their placement a long-term investment. If our public employees can rely upon their employer to care for them, we can rely upon our public sector.
An established long-term mental health program needs to be established. This can be all-inclusive to the entire community. For example, gun owners, and drivers of vehicles should be required to invest their time in an interview and possible retraining every five years. Should a mental health issue be recognized, it can be dealt with appropriately and calmly. Bad habits, addictions, attitudes and illnesses developed over time can be recognized and something is done about them promptly and privately.
We have forgotten that much that we receive from and within our society is a privilege, something that should be earnt, and not awarded. Our mental health changes over time, and so too our responsibility to our communities, family and society. Is the public sector becoming our parents, our caregivers? In many ways, it is, and so our overall health, and that of our minds may be calling for community maintenance.
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