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How One Conference Spread the Virus to Thousands

By Shlomo Maital

   We have consistently underestimated the degree to which the novel coronavirus is contagious and able to spread rapidly. And we keep waking up to bars, schools, universities, etc. creating new hotspots.

   Now, Angus Chen, a WBUR Boston radio reporter, reports on a new study by experts at Harvard-MIT’s Broad Institute, about how an innocent conference sponsored by biotech giant Biogen, in Cambridge MA., led to thousands of infections.

   “Early in the pandemic, state health officials counted 99 coronavirus cases stemming from a fateful Biogen meeting that turned into a superspreading event. Now, new genetic evidence suggests the infections unleashed at the Cambridge biotech company’s gathering in February washed through the Boston area and rippled across the world. Overall, the data suggests the event led to 40% of all COVID-19 infections in the Boston area as of July 1, says Bronwyn MacInnis, a viral genomicist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the senior author of a new, pre-publication study that attempts to trace the viral descendants of that outbreak. That translates to tens of thousands of cases.  “It’s fair to say it’s striking. [The conference] certainly has had an impact on the trajectory of the pandemic domestically and abroad,” MacInnis says. “It’s a great example of how connected we all are, and how viruses are agnostic to how they move and who they may infect. The activities that happen in one corner of a society can have far-reaching effects on others.” “

   Is there a positive message in this super-spread episode? There is.

   President Trump’s mantra, America First, revives selfish narcissistic world views, that has alienated allies abroad. And there are significant groups outside of America who embrace this me-only view.

   Along comes the virus, and recites John Donne’s 1633 poem, and teaches us anew its message:

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind

If the virus is not contained in California, Massachusetts will be at risk. If the virus is not contained in the US, then Germany is at risk. If the virus is not contained anywhere, then everywhere else is at risk.

Each person’s infection diminishes everyone else. For we are all involved and connected, in humankind.   Nature has conspired to teach us this lesson, in a most painful and costly manner.


A Look Inside Virus-Infected Cells

By Shlomo Maital

   Researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute have provided us with a revealing look inside cells infected with novel coronavirus. The research was led by Prof. Ido Amit, Dept. of Immunology, and reported in a front-page article in today’s Haaretz daily, by Ido Efrati.

       Amit is an expert in single-cell genomics, in which scientists analyze the DNA of single human cells. By analyzing single cells of severely ill patients with COVID-19, moderately ill ones and healthy persons, the scientists can map precisely how the insidious virus wreaks its havoc.

       Here is a short summary. The virus attacks epithelial cells in the lungs; these cells transport oxygen from the lungs to the blood, where it is distributed to the body’s vital organs.   This attack induces macrophages, a specialized cell that detects and (tries to) destroy the virus.   The Weizmann Institute scientists found that in seriously ill patients, the macrophages were replaced by monocytes, which are blood cells created by the body’s immune reaction. Ironically, an excess of those monocytes (as the body fights back against the virus) produces an overload of the immune reaction, known as a cytokine storm. This creates massive inflammation and actually hampers the immune system.

     The researchers, who have cooperated with other scholars in China and Italy, note that this cytokine storm occurs even before other signs appear.

     This suggests that a blood test could reveal which patients are high risk, even before their lungs show distress.   They also note that perhaps drugs or treatments can be developed to protect the lungs’ macrophages before the virus can seriously damage them.

     It is clear that those with unhealthy lungs, perhaps through smoking or other conditions, are more vulnerable.

       It is taking time, but thanks to cooperation among scientists worldwide, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge of precisely how the novel coronavirus makes us ill and kills some of us. This knowledge will ultimately lead to effective treatments.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital