The Human Genome Project After 20 Years: Model for COVID-19 Vaccine?

By Shlomo Maital   

                              Prof. Shirley Tighlman

    Twenty years ago, the human genome project was completed.  The complete human genome was sequenced, and then published openly in both Nature and Science journals.

     The project has changed healthcare and much more.  Speaking about the project on Ira Flatow’s Science Friday podcast, Prof. Shirley Tighlman, former President of Princeton University and a key scientist in the Genome project, noted that one result was ‘humility’ – we learned that the human genome was roughly as full and complex as that of a nematode or a flatworm.  (Humans have 22,000 protein-coding genes, roughly, and C-elegans worms have about 20,700). 

     The human genome project is still the world’s largest collaborative biological project. Planning started after the idea was picked up in 1984 by the US government, the project formally launched in 1990, and was declared complete on April 14, 2003

      A key role was played by Craig Venter.    In 2000, Venter and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Public Genome Project jointly made the announcement of the mapping of the human genome, a full three years ahead of the expected end of the Public Genome Program.  Venter’s startup Celera (Latin for speed or acceleration) found a fast way to sequence genomes – and saved many years and a lot of money.

     Today, a person’s genome can be sequenced  in a matter of hours,  and the cost (done by private gene-sequencing firms) is less than $1,000.  

      I regret that the COVID-19 vaccine project was not similarly organized, as a joint public collaborative project – with the results openly published and made available to all.  You could argue that the competition between Moderna and Pfizer and J&J and Astra-Zeneca, and maybe a hundred other labs, was productive.  But imagine if all this brainpower had collaborated?   And openly published the ‘recipe’, like the recipe for sourdough bread!   And then organized all the vaccine plants in the world to make the vaccines – and provide them to the world’s population.

Do NOT Write It Down!

By Shlomo Maital  

Don’t Write It Down!

   This is advice I got from travel author Bill Bryson, an American, who wrote the best-selling travelogue book about England,  Notes from a Small Island (1973).  Bryson, a native of DeS Moines, Iowa, lived in England for 22 years, and just before he left, to return to the US, he travelled up and down England,  mostly by bus, train and foot, and wrote about his experiences.  His book has now sold more than 3 million copies and is regaded as the best book ever written about England.   

    Now,  I take pride in having written 1,777 blogs, and in the principle “write it down!”    I do this, when I get an idea for a blog – and rush, dash, race, speed, stumble, sprint…to write it down – before it disappears into cyberspace or into this jumble of chaos and disorganization called my brain – 86 billion brain cells, and I’m so grateful and appreciative for every one of them.

     However, on a BBC program, Book Club, which solicited questions to Bryson from readers,  he was asked about how he wrote – did he write down experiences as he had them, or did he write them up later?

     “I found that I was spending all my time writing notes,”  he answered. “So I stopped.  And only went back weeks later to write up my notes.  That way, I found that I remember only the really important things”. 

        I think he is right.  Let your brain process things.  It will brilliantly separate the wheat from the chaff,  like old-time farmers tossing the wheat grains into the air and letting the wind blow away the chaff, leaving only the kernels that you want.  I feel the same about phone cameras – except, here, Bryson has more advice.  Take photos.  Not notes. Photos.  He later reviewed the photos,  and recalled the most important impressions.

        Everybody has their own style.  But each of our styles should be reviewed, contemplated and examined, from time to time. I am doing this actively.

         Write it down?   Maybe not.  Or maybe so.  What is your own style? 

         Whatever works.

At Last – A Drug to Fight COVID-19!

By Shlomo Maital    

Prof. Nadir Arber

    In the end, when we defeat COVID-19,  it will be through three qualities: aspiration (driving motivation to defeat it),  inspiration (brilliant out-of-the-box creative thinking) and perspiration (hard slogging 24/7 work to implement the idea).

     And here is the latest hopeful example, from the daily Jerusalem Post:   Use existing drugs that mitigate cytokine storms…..

Twenty-nine out of 30 moderate-to-severe COVID-19 patients who were administered a treatment developed by Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital) as part of a Phase I trial recovered from the disease and were released within three to five days, the hospital said Friday.  The 30th patient also recovered but it took longer.  The patients were given Prof. Nadir Arber’s EXO-CD24 COVID-19 treatment, which is based on CD24-enriched exosomes and is meant to fight the cytokine storm that is associated with many of the world’s COVID-19 deaths.  A cytokine storm is when the immune system essentially goes into overdrive and begins attacking healthy cells. Exosomes are responsible for cell-to-cell communication. In this case, they deliver the CD24 protein to the lungs, which helps calm down the immune system.   “This protein is located on the surface of cells and has a well-known and important role in regulating the immune system,” explained Dr. Shiran Shapira, who works in Arber’s lab.

So – people die from COVID-19,  in large part because the virus causes the immune system to over-react, creating a ‘storm’ that damages the lungs, and in the end may kill.   The idea of Prof. Arber?   Treat the storm, using existing drugs that had the similar function.  It sounds obvious, but it is not.   COVID-19, after all, is a lot different from cancer. But maybe there are similarities.

 Here is another piece from the article:

“Arber has been researching exosomes for the better part of two decades. He said it took about six months from the time the idea of using this treatment in the battle against COVID-19 was raised until it was first tested in humans. The treatment is inhaled once a day for a few minutes at a time for five days. It directly targets the lungs, the site of the storm, as opposed to other treatments that could be given systemically and hence cause severe side effects, Arber explained.  The majority of the patients who received EXO-CD24 showed significant improvement within two days.   The hospital has appealed to the Health Ministry to move forward with further clinical trials. Once approved, the treatment can be tried on additional patients.  “This is an innovative treatment that can be produced quickly and efficiently at a low cost,” Arber explained. “Even if the vaccines do what they are supposed to, and even if no new mutations are produced, then still, in one way or another, coronavirus will remain with us.”

How We Deal with COVID-19:  Which Are You?

By Shlomo Maital   

13 types

  How have YOU reacted to COVID-19? 

  A colleague has informed of about new research by Mimi E. Lam (University of Bergen) just published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.  She identifies and explores the impacts of  COVID-19 behavioral identities that are emerging.

“These emergent COVID-19 behavioural identities are being hijacked by existing social and political identities to politicize the pandemic and heighten racism, discrimination, and conflict,” says Lam. She continues: “the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that we are not immune to each other. To unite in our fight against the pandemic, it is important to recognize the basic dignity of all and value the human diversity currently dividing us.”

So – here are the 13 behavioral identities.  How have YOU responded to the crisis?  Of course, we are all combinations, or hybrids, of all 13.  But, which behavior MOST describes you?  Are you OK with this?  Would you like to, perhaps, embrace a little more  one of the others?    Are you a supporter?   At least, some of the time?

•           Deniers: who downplay the viral threat, promoting business as usual

•           Spreaders: who want it to spread, herd immunity to develop, and normality to return

•           Harmers: who try to harm others by, for example, spitting or coughing at them

•           Realists: who recognize the reality of the potential harm and adjust their behaviors

•           Worriers: who stay informed and safe to manage their uncertainty and fear

•           Contemplators: who isolate and re?ect on life and the world 

•           Hoarders: who panic-buy and hoard products to quell their insecurity

•           Invincibles:  often youth, who believe themselves to be immune

•           Rebels: who de?antly ?out social rules restricting their individual freedoms

•           Blamers: who vent their fears and frustrations onto others

•           Exploiters: who exploit the situation for power, pro?t or brutality

•           Innovators: who design or repurpose resources to fight the pandemic

•           Supporters: who show their solidarity in support of others

Dogs & People:  Are Dogs Our ‘Kids’?

By Shlomo Maital   


   Many many people are exceedingly fond of their pet dogs;  we are, too, very fond of Pixie, our 9-year-old mixed-breed Yorkie.  Now comes research from Austria and Israel, about the depth of our attachment.

    Turns out —  dogs have mirror neurons.  But — what are they?

A mirror neuron is a neuron (in the brain)  that fires both when an animal or a person acts and when the animal or person  observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in human and primate species, and birds. 

Mirror neurons are the key to empathy:  Understanding, sensing, feeling what others feel, with accuracy.  They are the key to human relationships. And, it emerges, to human-dog  or human-pet relations (even, human-python??).

 Research described in today’s daily Haaretz by Haifa University Prof. Anna Zamansky, together with colleagues at U. of Vienna and U. of Vienna Medical School, verifies that dogs’ mirror neutrons in their brains ‘fire’ when they are attached to their owners.   Dogs’ affection, that you can read in their eyes,  is reciprocated among their owners’ mirror neutrons…and the bond becomes incredibly deep. U. of Vienna is one of the few places where researchers have found how to use fMRI functional MRI brain imaging to study dogs’ brains.

  Ever looked into your dog’s eyes?  Can you read the love and affection that resides there?  And it is unconditional —  even among dogs owned by owners who are often not very considerate, who even forget food and water.  The researchers find that in some ways, the mirror-neuron process between dog and human is not unlike that between parents and their children. And I believe this is true.

  Probably, dogs became domesticated, in part because of those mirror neutrons.  Other research shows that early humans, tens of thousands of years ago, may have shared scraps of food with wolves… and the wolves kind of hung around, became domesticated and ..the rest is history.  Alaskan huskies look very much like wolves.  Yorkies don’t – but our little Yorkie still has wolf genes – she will take her biscuit treat, and race off to a corner, to protect it and consume it safely,  she will do many clockwise and counter-clockwise circles before settling down to sleep in her bed (or, I admit, on ours), and she fiercely protects her owners and their house, barking when there are intruders, including ones we ourselves do not hear. 

   Thank goodness for mirror neurons in animals.  It may help us humans to be more considerate of other living creatures on our planet.  And thank goodness Champ and Major, the Bidens’ German shepherds, have brought dogs back into the dogless White House.  How in the world can you trust a President, who does not have a dog?

Vaccinated?  Immune but Maybe a Spreader

By Shlomo Maital

  My wife and I got the second dose of Pfizer vaccine last Monday.  It went smoothly – a drive-in site at a football stadium, ten stations, no queues, big freezers set up nearby, with workers shuttling vials to the stations.    Computer links recording everything, and all this done by an HMO, one of four that Israelis belong to.   Every Israeli gets healthcare via an HMO; basic care is inexpensive.   

     I have been wondering —  after being vaccinated, can I still spread COVID-19?  I found a partial answer in today’s daily Haaretz.  Here is what it says:

       “Over 12,400 Israeli residents have tested positive for COVID-19 after being vaccinated, among them 69 people who had already gotten the second dose, ..the Health Ministry reported.”

    “…5,348 people were found infected up to a week after getting the vaccine, of the 100,000 people who were vaccinated and then tested a week later – an infection rate of 5.4 per cent of those vaccinated at the time.” 

     I note that in a deal made between Pfizer and Israel,  extra doses were shipped to Israel in return for the data on the vaccine’s track record.  Some think this violates  privacy – but it does not, since no names are attached, only aggregate data that can help Pfizer perhaps adjust the vaccine in future, to deal with mutations.

     How can we interpret the data?

      I think it means this —   the mRNA vaccine inoculates against the spike protein, that helps the virus invade our cells and make us ill.  It does NOT destroy the virus itself.  The virus an still be present in our nostrils…and hence we test positive.  But the virus is unable to make us ill, owing to the immunity given by the vaccine. So if we cough, we can spread the vaccine to others… but without getting ill ourselves. 

    This means everyone vaccinated must continue to wear masks….and socially distance.  At least for a while.   And further data are awaited….

“Humanity Comes First”

By Shlomo Maital      

President-elect Biden and FDR   

    The last time the US economy was in deep trouble was in the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  As President-elect Biden becomes just President, on Jan. 20, and plans to launch a flurry of executive orders to repair some of Trump’s wreckage,  he proposes a near-$2 trillion rescue package.  This will sharply boost America’s deficit – not that this bothered Trumpian Republicans, when they slashed taxes for the very rich and ensured America entered the pandemic with an already-unnecessarily huge deficit of $1 trillion, up by two-thirds from the deficit in 2016.   In 2020 the deficit was 15% of GDP, or $3 trillion.

    Perhaps we can learn about emergency deficit spending from US President Franklin D.  Roosevelt.  In his campaign speech in Pittsburgh, in 1936, prior to the presidential election in November,  FDR had to explain his large budget deficits:

    “To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people. To do so we should either have had to make a capital levy that would have been confiscatory, or we should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference. When Americans suffered, we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.”  Roosevelt won re-election in a landslide that year, with 61% of the popular vote and nearly all the electoral college ballots – over 500 electoral votes, out of 538!   Very few people even remember whom his opponent was (Alf Landon of Kansas —  Senate Majority Leader (for now) Mitch McConnell’s home state). 

        Humanity comes first, in times of great suffering.  It is incumbent on world political leaders to embrace that mantra, and direct emergency assistance directly to those who need it most and ensure that it is sufficient to mitigate their suffering.  When good times return, the fiscal cleanup can begin in earnest.   And yes, there will be a leaky bucket – when you have to pump purchasing power into the system very quickly, sometimes, you send checks to those who do not really need them.  So why not add an appeal, for those who do get government aid and don’t need it,  to find someone who does need it and share at least part of it?

Origins of the Word “Vaccine”

By Shlomo Maital   

     When Google counts “most searched words” for 2020 —  vaccine will be way up there in the list.  

      Ever wonder where the word vaccine came from?   Here’s the story, by Johanna Meyer, contributor to the Science Friday podcast of Ira Flatow.

       It began with Dr. Edward Jenner, who most people know discovered that cowpox could vaccinate against smallpox – and saved many lives.   Johanna Meyer continues:

  So here’s where we get the word vaccine. Edward wrote up his findings in a report called an Inquiry Into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae. In Latin, Variolae means pustules, and Vaccinae means, essentially, something that comes from a cow. So Variolae Vaccinae basically means cow pustules, or cowpox.   And for a long time, the word vaccine was used specifically to talk about using cowpox to prevent smallpox. It wasn’t until almost 100 years later that it came to mean more. And it was thanks to Louis Pasteur. He was a really big fan of Edwards, and he wanted to kind of honor him. So when Pasteur created the rabies vaccine, he suggested that we start using the word vaccination to mean any time we inoculate against any infection, just like we use the word today.

   Those who speak French know that cow is ‘vache” in French – and French, a Latin language, has Latin roots.  Vache = vaccine.  Voila. 

     So next week, when I get the second Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination shot against COVID-19, I will think of Edward Jenner and his daring experiment.  By the way – today it would not be possible. Jenner first injected the eight-year-old son of his gardener with the cowpox virus —   with his dad’s permission, but highly unethical today as a human experiment. 

    p.s. the illustration above is “la vache qui rit”,  the laughing cow, a French brand of cheese… 

The Recovery Will Surprise!  Count on It!

By Shlomo Maital      

     The New Year 2021 is here.  At last.  What will it bring?

      Economists have an awful track record in their predictions.  So take mine with a grain of salt… But nonetheless…

      The economic recovery will begin with widespread vaccination, and a chance in mood and mindset.  Later this year, people will return to their old spending habits, with a vengeance.  Why has the stock market hit record heights, despite the pandemic?  Because people have been saving and the money has been invested, with few good choices except the stock market and equities.  It’s basic supply and demand.  With interest rates low, borrowing costs are low, and bond opportunities are poor.  Why not go for equities?

        After World War II, economists predicted depression.  It was logical.  With some 8 million Americna soldiers demobilized, and with huge dollops of defense spending about to disappear, it looked like there would be massively deficient demand. Economists predicted the depression might return.

      The opposite happened. The economy took off (see graph).  Why?  Soldiers who came home played catch-up —  there was a baby boom, housing boom, everything boom…demand soared.

        This will likely occur, on  a somewhat reduced scale, later this year.  People will emerge, and catch up on their spending.  The economy will boom.  The businesses that shutdown will re-emerge.  A lot of things will change – but the good old personal consumption will again buoy the recovery. 

          I feel pretty confident about this.   But – we shall see. 

Primroses & Vaccines: Viva Italia!

By Shlomo Maital    

Primrose Vaccination Center

   A Japanese saying goes:  Spend one yen for bread, one yen for flowers.  The Italians, who have suffered enormously during the pandemic, have embraced the idea.  Ever a country that embraces beauty in design, Italy is employing its design creativity to vaccinate its population.

     According to Jason Horowitz, writing in the New York Times * ,  Italy has employed designer Stefano Boeri to design its new vaccination centers. There will be 1,500 of them, throughout Italy, and they will look as shown above.  The them of Boeri is the primrose.  Why?  “It is the first flower after winter,”  Boeri says,  drawing an analogy with the long dark winter of the pandemic,  “and it is a strong message hat everyone can understand.”  The spring after the dark winter.

    Boeri is famous for his vertical Milan skyscraper gardens,  also employed in Singapore. 

   My wife and I were vaccinated on Dec. 20, in a drive-in center, based in a football stadium parking lot – ten drive-in stands, run with exceptional efficiency, no queues, no waiting.  Pinnacle of efficiency.  I’m sure the Italian vaccination centers may be a lot less efficient – but far more beautiful.   One euro for bread, one for flowers.  Viva Italia!

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital