In the news / Viruses

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With the rise of the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant, stories surrounding breakthrough cases of vaccinated people continue to surface. Researchers remind us that vaccines reinforce the defenses we already have, so that we can encounter the virus safely and potentially build further upon that protection.
 
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The AZ HEROES study of COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness and immunity among frontline workers has received a $15 million award from the CDC to continue the current research for another year and expand to include children and focus on underserved populations.
 
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Scientists continue to investigate how COVID-19 affects our senses and changes the way we interact with society. Dr. Katalin Gothard says the isolation that comes with COVID-19 especially impacts our sense of touch. She is also studying how COVID-19 is changing our brain chemistry.
 
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Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya says the original COVID-19 Delta variant is more transmissible than anything we’ve seen before. Now, it mutated to delta plus, which seems to make it harder for antibodies to block it from entering a cell. Dr. Bhattacharya says the vaccines we have should provide protection from delta plus.
 
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In a time when the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is rapidly gaining traction, full vaccination offers a much better firewall against infection than partial vaccination. Dr. Michael Worobey agrees the virus has not run out of moves. Experiments found that fully vaccinated people — with the recommended regimen of two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca vaccine — should retain significant protection against the delta variant.
 
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Reaching the elusive herd immunity in Pima County has proven difficult as vaccine administration steadily decreased beginning in April. While some people remain hesitant to get a shot or simply are refusing to do so, health officials attribute the struggle to vaccinate to a lack of access.
 
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Results of the AZ HEROES study show those who contract COVID-19 after vaccination have lower viral load, shorter infection, and milder symptoms compared to the unvaccinated. The study followed Arizona first responders, health care workers, and other essential frontliners.
 
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Real-world data from the AZ HEROES study show COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing SARS-CoV-2 infections, and when breakthrough infections do occur, the level of infection and impact of the disease are significantly reduced. Dr. Jeff Burgess says that in addition to continuing research into COVID-19 immunity and vaccine efficacy, AZ HEROES researchers are beginning to examine the frequency of SARS-CoV-2 variants.
 
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Three teenagers—two soldiers and a civilian—were among the 50 million or more estimated casualties of the 1918 influenza A pandemic. The lungs of the three were saved, preserved in formalin for more than one hundred years, and are now being used to study the virus. Obtaining samples for the study is hard, and the team including Dr. Michael Worobey, UArizona evolutionary biologist and associate director of the BIO5 Institute, was able to secure a total of 13 lung tissue samples from people who died between 1900 and 1931. From specimens that were being housed in the Berlin Museum of Medical History and the pathology collection of the Natural History Museum in Vienna; three of them, all from 1918, contained influenza RNA. These organs are providing genetic clues as to why this flu virus took so many lives.
 
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Millions are being vaccinated for COVID-19, but some researchers are looking for new ways to detect it. University of Arizona scientist and BIO5 member Dr. Judith Su, is searching for a method to find the disease at the molecular level. If successful, the coronavirus could be detected through sensors that can deliver results within a minute.
 
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Emily Merritt, who is pursuing a doctorate in immunobiology, was one of the first students to participate in the Infection and Inflammation as Drivers of Aging, a program funded by a National Institutes of Health T32 training grant, which supports four graduate or post-doctoral students annually. She and four other students presented their research virtually at the inaugural Infection and Inflammation as Drivers of Aging symposium in January. The research topics ranged from chronic inflammatory response to ischemic stroke and tracking antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in aging individuals. Merritt presented on Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite she studies under the guidance of Dr. Anita Koshy, professor of neurology and BIO5 member.
 
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University of Arizona students are taking part in a nationwide study involving more than 20 college campuses that aims to understand whether people vaccinated against COVID-19 can still transmit the disease as asymptomatic carriers. The study’s principal investigator, Dr. Elizabeth Connick, BIO5 member and UArizona chief of the Infectious Diseases Division explained how the study is being conducted and how the findings can serve the ultimate goal of ending the pandemic.
 
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If you had the coronavirus and recovered, your body launched an immune response, but how does your body’s reaction to the virus compare with your body’s reaction to the vaccine? Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, immunobiologist at the University of Arizona and BIO5 member says it depends. Because natural immunity varies, Bhattacharya says the recommendation is you should get the vaccine even if you were exposed to COVID-19.
 
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If you got the Pfizer vaccine, will you really need to get a third shot within a year? The CEO of Pfizer said that’s likely the case, however, a local expert says not so fast. Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, BIO5 member and expert immunologist with the UArizona College of Medicine says that Pfizer and Moderna each released data showing no drop-off in efficacy. The wildcard then becomes whether or not there’s a new variant that appears, that more substantially evades the immune response than the ones that we know about right now.
 
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According to the Centers For Disease Control, common side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine include tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea. Dr. Elizabeth Connick, UArizona Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and BIO5 member, weighs in on factors such as genetics, age, and sex as contributing factors behind a person’s response to receiving a vaccine. Dr. Connick explains the double-edged sword that women have more robust antibody responses than men, are more likely to have reactions to the vaccine, but are also less likely to get hospitalized and succumb to COVID than men.
 
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The Arizona Board of Regents confirmed the appointments of six University of Arizona faculty members as Regents Professors, including UArizona CALS and BIO5 faculty, Dr. Ian Pepper. The designation of Regents Professor serves as recognition of the highest academic merit and is awarded to faculty members who have made a unique contribution to the quality of the university through distinguished accomplishments in teaching, scholarship, research or creative work. Dr. Ian Pepper is an internationally renowned environmental microbiologist who has worked at the interface of human health and soils, potable water and municipal waste. His research addresses real-world problems. His successful efforts to identify and quantify the COVID-19 virus in waste flows from university dormitories have gained international media attention. His team's "wastewater-based epidemiology," which enabled the university to avoid a major campus outbreak, has been implemented in many other locations.
 
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Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines provide good protection against the virus that causes COVID-19. But how long does that last? Will you need a booster shot? Researchers including Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, BIO5 member and associate professor of immunobiology at the University of Arizona explains that the vaccines will likely provide at least some degree of protection for a long time because there are so many layers of immunity. The first shots of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provide reasonable protection. Then the second shot bumps up the level of antibodies and T cells produced by the body, he says.
 
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At the most recent UArizona COVID-19 status briefing President Robert C. Robbins urged students to receive their first COVID-19 vaccine dose by April 16 to reach full vaccination before summer travel. Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, associate professor of immunobiology in the College of Medicine – Tucson and BIO5 member, joined President Robbins to explain the basics of COVID-19 antibodies and the testing program. Dr. Bhattacharya said the study will help scientists determine how long immunity – either from infection or vaccination – can last, how many antibodies are required to protect from the virus, how age affects the immune response to infection or vaccination, and whether symptoms after infection or vaccination correlate with antibody levels.