In the news / Cardiovascular

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The new variant to COVID-19 sports an unusual number of mutations, including some that appear to change the virus’ behavior. It seems to be significantly more transmissible, increasing the rate at which infected people infect others, although there is no evidence to date that the variant triggers more severe disease. There are efforts afoot to try to figure out how widely the new variant is spreading — one of them led by the lab of Dr. Michael Worobey, whose team is develop a test for variant viruses in wastewater from community sewage systems.
 
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Vaccines usually take years to develop, but in the case of COVID-19 it took less than a year. Experts including Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, UArizona immunobiologist and BIO5 member, say that part of the reason is the research has been going on for years. Even though the development of the vaccine was fast, it was slow enough to catch safety issues. It is possible that some people will still have adverse reactions to the vaccine. But Dr. Bhattacharya cautions the public not to take one or two cases of adverse reactions as a reason not to get vaccinated.
 
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As vaccines for COVID-19 roll out, so do questions and concerns. Do they work? What are the side effects? Which one is more effective? Pfizer or Moderna? Different companies but both claim their vaccine to be 95% effective. Doctors all over the world are saying, not just having one but two vaccines is incredible. Dr. Elizabeth Connick, UArizona Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and BIO5 member, called the vaccine a home run. Overall, Dr. Connick said, the vaccines are the same but with a few differences, like effects.
 
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The United States is hoping to vaccinate 50 million people by the end of January, which will give us more bang for our buck than the next 50 million, because the vaccination rollout will start with the elderly and other high-risk groups, health-care professionals, essential workers. In the meantime, consider postponing that Christmas party, if you can. Protect the members of your family who are elderly, or who are at heightened risk; keep them safe now, as we stand on the precipice of relief. We cannot guarantee the future, but just as the dangers of this grim winter are real, so are the reasons for hope.
 
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Statistics show relatively high usage rates for UArizona's exposure notification app, which helped curb the spread of the virus on campus. Public health experts say the digital strategy worked well because it was used in conjunction with traditional contact tracing, in addition to testing and isolation efforts.
 
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Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Immunobiology and a member of the university's BIO5 Institute, spoke with UArizona News about the science, development process, and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Bhattacharya’s expertise is in immune responses to infections and vaccines.
 
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Thousands of researchers dropped whatever intellectual puzzles had previously consumed their curiosity and began working on the COVID-19 pandemic instead. In mere months, science became thoroughly COVID-ized. Included in this effort is Dr. Michael D. L. Johnson, BIO5 member and Immunobiology assistant professor with the UArizona College of Medicine-Tucson, who normally studies copper’s toxic effects on bacteria. But when he learned that SARS CoV 2 persists for less time on copper surfaces than on other materials, he partially pivoted to see how the virus might be vulnerable to the metal. No other disease has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.
 
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An ultracold storage facility capable of storing more than 1.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine has been completed at the University of Arizona. Each unit at the freezer farm facility has the capacity to hold between 100,000 and 187,000 doses of vaccine, said BIO5 member Dr. David T. Harris, a professor in the UArizona Department of Immunobiology and executive director of the University of Arizona Health Sciences Biorepository.
 
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The University of Arizona will require students who live in dorms or attend in-person classes on the main campus to be tested weekly for COVID-19 in the spring. The university also will begin offering a new swish-gargle PCR test in addition to nasal swab antigen and PCR testing in the spring. The new test developed by a team of UArizona researchers lead by Dr. Michael Worobey, UArizona EEB department head and BIO5 institute associate director, involves swishing and gargling a saline solution, then spitting into a tube. Results are usually available the same day.
 
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The idea behind these rapid tests is to detect symptomatic, pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic infectious people before they can spread the coronavirus. But despite massive distribution of these tests by federal officials – including to date over 40 million of 150 million rapid tests ordered from the medical company Abbott – COVID-19 transmission has been surging in every state since early November. For rapid tests to effectively limit spread of the coronavirus, experts suggest that they must be conducted with high frequency.
 
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UArizona researchers are conducting a multiyear research study – Arizona CoVHORT – to compare health outcomes for Arizonans who tested positive for the novel coronavirus to those of Arizonans who were not infected. Led by Dr. Kristen Pogreba-Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and BIO5 member, researchers will collect information on preexisting conditions such as cancer, hypertension and diabetes, as well as basic data such as sex, race, ethnicity and occupation.
 
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Dr. Michael Worobey, epidemiologist at the University of Arizona and BIO5 associate director, discusses how COVID-19 cases in the state are close to entering "crisis mode." Dr. Worobey also encourages Arizonans to modify their holiday plans to just their immediate households.
 
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College of Nursing faculty is comprised of both nurses and scientists from other fields, creating a rich environment for team science, bringing their expertise to enrich research and education. Dr. Judith Gordon the college’s associate dean for research and BIO5 member, uses her health care background in behavioral psychology, and backgrounds in IT and theater, to work with Nursing students. They studyed computer science, working together to create the See Me Serene mobile phone app to study guided meditation for stress reduction and smoking cessation.
 
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Working with researchers throughout the Pac-12 Conference, some of the most significant challenges all athletic departments are facing include testing and a cooperative working relationship with local public health departments. At the University of Arizona, everyone is working together with a direct link to athletics. The advisory team includes Dr. John Galgiani, director of the UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence and BIO5 member, along with people representing the intensive care unit at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson. In calls with the other Pac-12 schools, we preach that you have to work with your county health department and ensure that everyone works together and shares as much data as possible.
 
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Children infected with the coronavirus produce weaker antibodies and fewer types of them than adults do, suggesting they clear their infection much faster, according to a new study. Having weaker and fewer antibodies does not mean that children would be more at risk of re-infections, said other experts including Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, immunologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson and BIO5 member.
 
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Most Arizona residents, like people in much of the country, do not have antibodies for the virus yet, and those who do can’t count on how long they will be protected against reinfection. Antibody tests in recent weeks show a statewide positivity rate of about 10%, according to Arizona Department of Health Services data. Regardless of the exact numbers, this means one thing, roughly 90% of Arizonans have not been exposed to the virus, and are therefore vulnerable, says Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich, head of the UArizona Department of Immunobiology and BIO5 member.
 
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded $7.7 million to the University of Arizona to find out how long COVID-19 immunity lasts. UArizona was chosen due to its widespread antibody testing that will help in the research. Lead investigator of the study, Dr. Jeff Burgess, BIO5 member and associate dean of research at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, said the study will include frontline workers such as grocery store employees, restaurant workers, bus drivers, and many others.
 
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Extraordinary efforts are underway to develop COVID-19 vaccines and other therapies to combat this virus. But for these efforts to succeed, understanding how the virus enters cells is critical. To that end, in two papers published in Science, two teams independently discovered that a protein called the neuropilin-1 receptor is an alternative doorway for SARS-CoV-2 to enter and infect human cells. This is a major breakthrough and a surprise, because scientists thought neuropilin-1 played roles in helping neurons make the correct connections and aiding the growth of blood vessels. Before this new research, no one suspected that neuropilin-1 could be a door for SARS-CoV-2 to enter the nervous system.