BAR HARBOR—On Thursday April 29, MDI Biological Laboratory held a COVID-19 research panel discussion via Zoom as part of its annual Maine Biological and Medical Sciences Symposium.
James Coffman, associate professor at MDI Biological Laboratory, said the symposium’s purpose is to bring biologists and biomedical scientists from around the state together once a year to share research over the course of three days. As the host of the pandemic Zoom webinar, Coffman introduced Maine research panelists.
Meghan May, a professor of microbiology and infectious disease at the University of New England, was the first to speak. “Part of my work is biological concepts surrounding emerging diseases, where they come from and how they adapt to new hosts,” she said.
Initial reports of the coronavirus seemed inconsistent to May because the leaked information was translated by a machine. It wasn’t long before the first documented evidence of community transmission followed by a steady incline graph of U.S. deaths caused May and other professionals to realize the gravity of the situation.
“You didn’t need to be an epidemiologist to recognize this pattern. All you have to understand is that this is exponential growth,” said May.
Over a year later, with the rapid release of vaccinations, May feels that pandemic science denial has become an even bigger issue.
“You throw bar graphs at people and it’s wildly ineffective, the dangers of disinformation, now less with the virus and more with the vaccine, we are still very deeply mired that every crisis needs a good conspiracy,” she said.
May explained that the number of deaths depends on who wins a misinformation battle, asking, “Can we vaccinate faster than variants can evolve or will variants evolve faster than we can vaccinate?”
May’s speech prompted a question for Cat Lutz, The Jackson Laboratory’s mouse repository director. In response to mouse models being used to investigate extreme side effects or long-term effects of COVID-19 vaccines, Lutz said, “a lot of the [vaccine] trials have also been used for safety and those are also done in small animals, rodents and nonhuman primates.”
On the subject of the pandemic, Lutz was also present to talk about mouse models for COVID-19 research. Last year, Lutz’s team at Jackson Laboratory began researching associated complications, long-term follow–up progression, as well as new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. “We needed to test vaccines and anti-virals. This isn’t necessarily a trivial undertaking. The testing of therapeutics and vaccines are almost always done on small animals and, in this case, the mouse is always one of the premiere models,” said Lutz.
In the beginning phases of testing, Lutz explained the problem was that the mice were not able to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 because of the differences in the Ace2 protein receptors. According to Lutz, humans have different amino acids than mice in a particular region, which makes the coronavirus unable to enter the cell. The Jackson Laboratory soon had access to engineered models that contain the human transgene, which allowed for the expression of the human Ace2 protein on the cell surface in the mouse to be infected with SARS-CoV-2. “The human transgene model mouse leads to rapid lethal respiratory failure upon infection much like with the SARS virus, which was perfect for vaccine and antiviral development,” she said, adding that they are now infecting other nonhuman transgene mice with new variants of the disease. To Lutz, mice now being susceptible to new variants when at first they had to be humanized is something that scientists should be aware of with all species.
Susan Santangelo, director of psychiatric research at Maine Medical Center, spoke of pandemic statistics on behalf of Maine’s participation in the National COVID Cohort Collaborative (N3C). Since April 12, Santangelo said that 54,827 people in Maine have tested positive for SARS CoV-2, which resulted in 1,742 hospitalizations, 753 deaths and a case rate of 409/10,000.
“Because a significant proportion of our population is older, rural and carry significant comorbidities, each of which may confer greater risk for infection and mortality from COVID-19, we felt an urgency to respond to the need to identify the underlying epidemiology, clinical presentation and prognosis related to SARS CoV-2,” said Santangelo.
When the Northern New England Clinical and Translational Research network participated in the N3C that involved accessing MaineHealth’s data for specific studies, it found that 8,813 of the 150,000 patients in the MaineHealth system who were tested for COVID-19 tested positive. “MaineHealth has contributed the clinical data of 92,601 unique patients to N3C, 60 percent of whom live in rural areas, and 27 percent who are age 65 or older,” said Santangelo.
A response to address deaths being falsely recorded as COVID-19 was given by Santangelo, who said those who died of the virus also happened to have another comorbid condition. “There’s no denying that there are more deaths this past year than we have seen normally because the data is there to prove this,” she said.
“If a cancer patient died of flu, is it inappropriate to say that they died of influenza? No, of course it’s not. They did die of influenza,” said May. The panelist expressed that as cases continue to circulate, more variants are going to emerge, and the coronavirus could be here forever. “I don’t think we’re winning yet. It depends entirely on the vaccine logistics and compliance. We’re starting to outbalance how much vaccine supply we have with the people who are willing to get it. Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to be boosted, including those variants,” she said.