immune system

‘Tis The Season To…..Mask Up Again??

"It's a bug hunt!"

-Private Hudson, in “Aliens”

"Influenza-like illnesses" are increasing at an alarming rate across the country. Yup, ‘tis the season for respiratory diseases and we have more than one to worry about. In years past we mostly worried only about the flu and, sometimes as an afterthought, colds, which aren’t of much concern. But in late 2019, a brand new and very weird bug appeared on the scene, SARS-CoV-2 that caused COVID. It seems that the bug and disease will be an annual guest from now on. This year, we also see a surge of a third bad bug, respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. All these viruses cause what have been collectively labeled “flu-like illnesses” and together they seem to be worse this year than recent years. The CDC reports that hospitalizations for flu-like illnesses have been steadily rising and that the peak is still to come.

As a result, we are beginning to see increasing reports of a return to local mask mandates. In my own community of Madison, Wisconsin, two major health networks just announced their return, like a bad TV rerun. This includes the University of Wisconsin Health network, where I receive health care. Glad I kept a few masks on hand. What’s in your glove compartment?

I also have read where some grocery stores are now requiring masks. Some stores only require masks on certain days of the week so that customers can select to shop on mask-required vs mask-optional days. Some colleges and large companies reportedly also are beginning to require masks again. So far these mandates are very local and are not a national phenomenon. It is feasible that mask mandates in public spaces and especially for travel could increase if infections and hospitalizations get more serious.

As I often say in these blog posts, “we will see.”

Why is the flu and RSV, which have been around almost forever now causing more than their usual problems? A hint was presented in a blog post I published about a year-and-a-half ago, “What Happened To The Flu And Other Respiratory Diseases?”  In that apparently prescient post, I reported that the world had seen a huge reduction of all infectious respiratory diseases due to the protective non-pharmaceutical interventions (masking, sanitation, isolation, quarantines, closings, etc.) designed to physically protect people from the new coronavirus. They were so effective that some strains of other common infectious viruses are thought to have gone extinct!

That is great news! But, it also means that the world also missed its regular natural booster of common bugs and our herd immunity to them waned. Our youngest were never exposed to those bugs and the rest of us became less resistant to future exposure and that future is now. We are now paying the piper for that lapse in a “bug boost.” Hence, flu and RSV temporarily are having their way with us and enjoying it. At least they are not nearly as nasty as the coronavirus initially was and still could be with a couple of insouciant genetic tweaks.

“Influenza-like illness,” is a catch-all term coined by the CDC to corral COVID and the other two viral diseases. Together, the three have reached an epidemic point in the US and other places across much of the world. The Figure below shows that the US epidemic is currently hitting Southern States the hardest, but expect it to migrate Northward in the next few weeks.

What do the different colors in the Figure mean on a practical level? I can offer one anecdotal example. According to the map, New Jersey, while not a Southern State, still is being hit hard. A family doc wrote about a week ago that all the hospitals in his health system are at capacity. He was unable to send a patient to the preferred ER because its hospital was full due COVID, flu and RSV cases. And the patients with these flu-like respiratory infections who were filling the beds were not necessarily elderly. Most are in their 40’s-50’s. Unsurprisingly, the hospitals and clinics in his health system again require masks. Their staffing is becoming a critical issue as providers also become ill and turn into patients. This is becoming too reminiscent of the early stages of the COVID onslaught when hospitals where overwhelmed and medical personnel were dropping like flies. So far, this experience is sporadic across the US. But, it is becoming concerning.

ORI
Outpatient Respiratory Illness Activity Map Determined by Data Reported to ILINet
This system monitors visits for respiratory illness that includes fever plus a cough or sore throat, also referred to as ILI, not laboratory confirmed influenza and may capture patient visits due to other respiratory pathogens that cause similar symptoms. From the CDC.

The incidence of RSV is high. RSV hospitalizations have increased 60% nationwide over the past four weeks. A couple of deaths in children have been reported in my state. The vaccine for RSV is brand new this year and recommended for people over 65 and for kids; i.e., those at highest risk for severe disease. It definitely is worth it.

Flu is moderate right now, but expect it to soon blossom. Hospitalizations among all age groups increased by 200% for influenza in the past four weeks but still remain below Covid-19 and RSV hospitalizations. For now. They are expected to increase as the peak flu season has yet to arrive.

And then there is our relatively new friend, COVID. On a national level, COVID virus transmission is “very high.” After the post-Thanksgiving surge, as determined by monitoring viral loads in wastewater samples (“take-your-kids-to-work” days in that profession must be fun!), virus levels plateaued. But expect another sharp rise after the Christmas/New Year’s holidays. We have consistently seen this pattern in previous years.

Cov-2 is one of the most mutable viruses that the world has inflicted on us. That means we are constantly seen new variants arising. Surprise, the Omicron subvariant JN.1 is coming onto the scene. It’s the spawn of variant BA.2.86, which was discovered over the summer and was concerning because it came out of nowhere with a whopping 35 mutations in the spike protein (the more mutations, the greater the chance for another very nasty bug). While BA.2.86 caused a comparatively mild disease, it quickly mutated to JN.1 with just an additional single change in the spike protein that made it much more infectious, but it still remains fairly mild. With just one mutation, it became the fastest-spreading CoV-2 variant in the past two years. With all its changes, JN.1 is so different from its Omicron grandparent that there is considerable scientific debate about whether JN.1 should be given its own Greek letter designation, Pi. A weighty debate indeed.

But, a bigger question is whether COVID hospitalizations will follow wastewater sampling trends that show JN.1 (or Pi) viral levels surging through the world, especially in the US where vaccination rates are low. It is concerning that the UK and Singapore, which have high vaccination rates, are now seeing a steep increase in hospitalizations due to JN.1 (or Pi). So why not expect the same or even worse in the undervaxed US? Last week, the CDC warned about such a potentially huge impact due to the wretched combination of low US vax rates and the highly infectious JN.1 (or Pi) virus. As Private Hudson (aka Bill Paxton) in the movie Aliens might say, thanks to the antivaxers, “Game over, man! Game over!”

Also of new concern is that some scientists are now beginning to believe that COVID infection could be damaging our immune systems. If true, that could make infected people even more vulnerable to the other bugs out there such as flu, RSV, and others including bacteria and fungi. COVID could also cause immune dysregulation leading to new-onset autoimmune diseases. So get your COVID vaccines! They can protect you against illness beyond COVID!!

Finally, another concern is that the rapid home tests for COVID are proving to be only 30% reliable very early after infection before symptoms start. In other words, if you believe you have been exposed to COVID, but your home test comes up negative, don’t necessarily believe it. Retest yourself 24, or preferably 48 hours later or when you show symptoms like a fever, cough, etc. If that second test also is negative, you have pretty good confidence you are COVID free and have some other bug.

The pragmatic bottom line. There is a lot of coughing, sneezing and other respiratory distress going around, and it will increase in coming cold weeks as we bundle up and crowd around others indoors. To improve your odds of staying healthy, remember these things:

  • Limit your time around indoor crowds.
  • If you have indoor gatherings, crack your windows and bring out the fans to increase air circulation and air exchange with the outdoors. There is very good evidence that good ventilation really matters and that the amount of viruses we breathe in makes a big difference in terms of whether we get sick and how sick we get. It is worth a few extra dollars on the heating or electricity bill to avoid nasty illness.
  • Room air filters are also a good idea.
  • Get vaccinated!
  • Wash your hands often.
  • If you do get sick, STAY HOME! I have always hated the “brave” soul who came to work with a cough and sneeze. Don’t share your agony!!
  • And there are the good old fashioned masks for use in crowded places, especially in auditoriums, on planes, and other packed indoor situations. I don’t care what the naysayers say about masks, they are flat wrong. They don’t think twice when a store sign requires shoes and shirts to enter. So why do masks bother them so much? They WORK as I have written here before, over and over. Empirical evidence proves masks work. That is why the entire medical profession continues to use them.

Finally, as I have repeatedly admonished, please get vaccinated. Vaccine and booster uptake for all three viruses has been dismal this year. Failure to vax is a major driver in the surge of the flu-like respiratory diseases we are seeing. If you have not gotten vaccinated for all three circulating viruses, why the heck not?? It is way better to prevent disease than to treat disease. A sore arm is much less of an inconvenience than suffering the flu, RSV or lying in a specialized hospital bed turned on your stomach breathing with a ventilator because of COVID.

As I have written in these pages, having COVID can be worse than any flu you ever had. It also puts adults at risk for dealing with weeks of long COVID and getting new-onset diabetes and immune dysfunction. COVID also is much worse than the flu for many kids and puts them at risk for multi-system inflammatory syndrome (MIS).

Why risk what can be prevented by a simple vaccination?

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While SARS-CoV-2 And Our Immune Systems Do A Dance, We Get Re-Infected

Note: Artificial intelligence wrote nary a word of the following article, which was fully composed by the natural intelligence of a certain human.

Your sometimes humble blogger remembers how immunology science first beguiled him. It was during senior year in high school in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. More specifically it was during a lunch break while working at a People’s Drug Store that had a lunch counter. Your then nascent blogger grabbed the recent issue of Scientific American from the magazine rack and opened it to an article that was way above his green scientific understanding but, he, nevertheless, gleaned from the article that the immune system could make antibodies to just about any molecule in the universe, even ones newly created in a lab that the universe had never seen. Amazing!

Your immune system would also make antibodies against the cells and tissues of your best friend and everyone else in the world, and vice versa, but you and your best friend, et al., would not make antibodies against the same cells and molecules in your own bodies! What?

“Holy cow!” I thought. How in the world can the immune system do all that? How can it respond to something the world had never seen and secern friend from foe? At that moment, at that lunch counter over a burger, Coke and an article I barely understood, an immunologist was made. And I did indeed go on to earn a PhD in immunology and I indeed have studied how the immune system recognizes viruses and have done vaccine research. What a pivotal lunch break that was for me.

The question about antibody discrimination clearly fascinated me. That mystery has been solved and a few Nobel prizes awarded for its elegant solution, but related spin-off questions about how antibodies protect us keep coming up in different ways. It did so most recently during the COVID pandemic. Why weren’t the antibodies we generated via vaccination or via natural infection more protective against subsequent infection? In a twist in the plot of biology, it turns out that we have learned that the answers to these questions center around a complicated dance performed between both the virus and immune biological systems.

Biology is so doggone interesting!!

COVID Vaccine generated immunity: The several vaccines we now have against the SARS-CoV-2 virus are effective and provide examples of how vaccines are very good at getting the immune system to respond to what it detects as foreign invaders. But the vaccines are just designed to tell our immune systems to make antibodies against just a very small fragment of the spike protein. In contrast, the virus is constructed of several large proteins each of which has many different regions that the immune system can separately recognize as foreign. In other words, if the virus is like a brick building, your system theoretically can make a different antibody that specifically recognizes each brick of the building. So, the vaccine is like exposing the immune system to about 2-3 bricks of the whole building and trusting the resulting immune response against those few bricks to bring the whole building down.

The immune system was very good in generating antibodies to a small portion of the virus, yet many vaccinated people still were infected and caught COVID. Does that mean, as many vax naysayers claim that the vaccines were ineffective? Not at all, as I have discussed here before. While the CoV-2 vaccines did a good job at protecting against serious disease and death they were not very good at preventing the spread of the virus. These vaccines effectively generated a systemic immune response, meaning that you had anti-viral antibodies circulating in your blood, which did do a very good job preventing serious disease once the virus got inside you. But, it still got inside. You still got infected and got mildly sick.

We now know that the virus enters via mucous membranes in your nose, sinuses, mouth, throat and eyes. It has to first cross mucous membranes in order to infect you and that is where it needs to be stopped in order to actually prevent infection and further spread to others. The problem is that mucosal immunity is caused by a different type of antibody than what circulates in the blood and by what is generated by a typical vaccine that is given by an injection in the arm. To generate mucosal immunity, you need a vaccine that you spray in your mouth or nose, which then should generate the type of antibodies that provide mucosal protection and better protect you from infection via that route and better prevent the virus from spreading through a population.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were faced with a brand new pathogen for which we knew nothing about how it behaved or how it infected and spread between people. At that point, we reasonably chose to quickly make the most common type of vaccine--a shot. While it didn’t fully protect against getting infected, it nevertheless was very effective at protecting against serious disease. So, it did a good job. Current efforts are underway to develop a mucosal vaccine. But, we must also deal with other complications we have learned about the dance between the virus and the immune system to make sure that vaccine will be maximally effective at preventing infection. Read on.

“Natural” COVID immunity: As it became clear that vaccinated people were still getting infected, the vaccine dissenters and dissemblers proclaimed loudly, and still do, that the vaxes failed miserably. They ignored the survival data and only focused on the infection data. They then began touting “natural immunity,” which is the immunity one usually gains after being naturally infected. But, that can be uncertain given the fact that the route of infection and the dose of virus can vary wildly and confer different levels of protection, as I reported earlier. Plus, with natural infection, one runs the risk of serious disease and death from the disease.

Then, to the chagrin of the “natural immunity” enthusiasts it turned out that they also were getting re-infected! And this re-infection occurs despite the fact that natural immunity occurs after infection across the mucous membranes that should, as discussed above, generate an immune response that would stop an infection! This is the dance.

Therefore, we now know that neither vaccine immunity, nor infection immunity fully protects against future infection with the CoV-2 virus (there is partial protection, but I won’t go into that here).

As we learned as recently as last April, from a Harvard study published in the journal Science, despite the fact that a natural infection presents the immune system with the full viral “building and all its bricks” potentially recognizable by antibodies, it turns out that only a few of the “bricks” are in fact actively “seen” at any time by the immune system.

This immuno-dominance of a small part of a larger pathogen that has thousands of sites or bricks the immune system can recognize is not unusual. It is like a large building consisting of thousands of bricks, but having a very attractive window that draws your attention. While you know an entire building is there, your attention is mostly drawn to the window. So can the focus of the immune system be preferentially drawn to a small part of a larger edifice. The immune system is perfectly capable of seeing the rest of the “building,” but it prefers to direct its attention to a small part of it. However, if you take away the part it prefers to focus on, the immune system will easily recognize something else. This immuno-dominance in what the immune system “sees” has several causes that are way too complicated to go into here without writing a textbook (an interested reader might try Paul’s Fundamental Immunology. My rather old edition of that book runs about 1500 pages!). Suffice it to just know that this sort of immuno-dominance often happens where only a small part of a large pathogen is preferentially recognized by the immune system.

Thus, the immunity developed after a natural infection is mostly only directed at a small portion of the virus, much like the antibody response after vaccination with just a small part of the virus. The natural immune response, like the vaccine immune response, is robust and effective, yet both are only directed against a very small portion of a big pathogen, and both are very leaky in that one can still get infected again! What gives?

Mutation gives.

How the virus escapes immunity: The SARS-CoV-2 virus is highly mutable unlike the other viruses like polio and small pox we vaccinate against and maintain long term immunity against. Thus, the virus quickly mutated, or changed, the “bricks” against which the vaccines were made rendering the immune response less and less effective over time as new viral iterations appeared. That is why the many boosters we got were necessary to keep vaccination immunity up with viral changes.

And that also is how someone who became immune after natural infection also became re-infected. The virus did a two-step and mutated the small region recognized by the immune system. It was pretty easy for the virus to do since it only had to change a couple of “bricks” in its facade that the antibodies were mostly attacking. That means that upon re-infection with a slightly mutated virus, the immune systems have to be re-educated to recognize a new intruder, and that takes time, which allows a new infection to settle in. Thus, in this dance, the gentleman virus leads and the dame immune system follows.

New vaccines continue to be developed that scientists hope will solve these problems unique to SARS-CoV-2. Most of the new vaccines are being built on the mRNA platform, but using novel approaches to 1) develop vaccines that can be given as a nasal spray in order to generate the mucosal immunity that hopefully would be more effective at actually preventing COVID. If this works, it might even be possible to hinder COVID spread. 2) But in order to block CoV-2 spread on a population level, we need to find other regions of the virus that are not so highly mutable. These would conceivably be regions of COVID proteins critical for viral function that tolerate little change in structure because that change would destroy the proteins' critical function and essentially kill the virus. Alternatively, new vaccines could incorporate multiple "bricksl" from different regions of the edifice assuming that it would be nigh impossible for all those sites to simultaneously mutate. If such regions are accessible to the immune system, then the resulting immunity would be expected to be impervious to viral mutation, thus ending the dance on a sour note.

It is even possible that such a vaccine could protect against a wide range of coronaviruses, thereby preventing future health problems arising from new coronaviruses. Remember SARS that also popped up in China a couple of decades ago? That virus has some genome similarity to the virus that caused the COVID pandemic, and both are distantly related to the virus that caused MERS that arose in the Middle East. If a pan-coronavirus vaccine can be developed, it could feasibly prevent many future epidemics and pandemics.

We shall see.

This is all part of a new biology that I earlier dubbed BioX. Biology is so doggone interesting!!

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