It’s been hard to make sense of the headlines on COVID lately.
Just in the past weeks, we’ve seen ones like, “New strain detected in Israel” or “California’s new strain reduces immune response.”
But much of this kind of conversation is misguided, argues one of the nation's top virology experts.
“The narrative is screwed up in a way,” says Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. For one, he says, there is only one known strain of the novel coronavirus -- the original one, SARS-CoV-2, first discovered in Wuhan. And, two, there's no evidence so far of a variant that can meaningfully evade vaccines, though there are several variants out there.
“People don’t really know what they are talking about,” says the researcher. “I understand, because you talk to doctors and scientists and you figure they would know what they are talking about, but they don’t always.”
While Racaniello appreciates the threat of COVID-19, he believes people have been too narrowly focused on how antibodies respond against the coronavirus’ spike protein – and how some variants have appeared to limit the effectiveness of these antibodies in blocking infection. But that’s not the whole story, he says.
Who is Racaniello to say? He wrote the book on viruses. Literally.
A coauthor of the text, “Principles of Virology,” Racaniello has been researching viruses like polio since the 1970s, and started his own lab in the early 1980s. Becoming intrigued with virology after reading the book, “Fever! The Hunt for a New Killer Virus” about lassa fever, Racaniello began studying at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and then at MIT alongside greats like David Baltimore, who had just won the Nobel Prize for his role in discovering an enzyme called reverse transcriptase.
For the last several decades, he’s been on a mission to educate the world about viruses. He teaches the subject, blogs about it, and hosts free online lectures and shows like, “This Week in Virology.”
“I said, you know, people don’t really understand viruses and bacteria and so forth,” Racaniello told TheStreet in a phone interview. “So, my career really morphed from someone doing just research to (also) doing science communication. And people responded.”
In his online lectures and podcasts, he talks about how even the cabbage and other vegetables we eat are often carrying viruses, the oceans are swimming with them and while some are deadly, many are harmless to humans.
He started tracking the novel coronavirus as it first emerged in China, and since he’s been picking apart new findings and research, as well as news reports about it, and discussing them with other scientists and doctors to educate the public about the pandemic.
Here, he reflects on the handling of COVID, misconceptions about it, science funding in the U.S. and technology that could soon help in the fight against deadly diseases – and the next pandemic.
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TheStreet: Early in January 2020, there were reports that this novel coronavirus appeared not to spread among people and appeared to not be deadly. What were you thinking at the time?
Racaniello: We covered that in early January 2020, and we said, “How do they know that it’s not transmissible among people? How do they know it’s not lethal?” ... We were very skeptical that it didn’t kill people and it wasn’t transmissible. We have from the beginning always looked at the data and questioned it.
TheStreet: Also, at the same time, in the U.S. you had people saying, “Worry about the flu, don’t worry about this.” Yet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were sounding alarm bells about it. Is there a lesson here for the next viral pandemic that will happen?
Racaniello: Well, we’re going to have another one, for sure, whether it’s another coronavirus or flu or whatever, there’s no way we’re going to prevent it. Unfortunately, this response got caught up in politics, right? And it’s crazy that public health measures got political. … The fact that, today, right now, that (many) Republicans don’t want the vaccine and (many) Democrats do, is just ridiculous. The former administration politicized it. Trump wanted to talk it down because he thought the stock market would tank or some nonsense, and then he got so far into it, he couldn’t reverse himself. … Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention screwed up, big time, because the director, he blew it from the start. He was a Trump loyalist and didn’t want to go against him.
So, this is going to go in the texts book of what not to do. … It’s quite clear that many Americans had died because of it.
TheStreet: Now, fast forward to today, and we have three vaccines that look highly effective. But, we have fears that a new strain could emerge that could evade them…
Racaniello: I am not worried at all that this virus is going to out-evolve vaccines. People have been looking at it the wrong way. People have been looking at antibodies. People say, “ah, the variants are less susceptible to antibodies. But, you know what? They are ignoring T cells. It turns out, none of the variants have changes that would impact the ability of the T cells to kill an infected cell. The Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) - Get Report vaccine turns out to be 100% effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths in South Africa…. I just saw an article today that showed that the U.K. variant ... made no difference in the outbreak in the U.K. It made no difference. The people who know, they are not worrying that the vaccines are going to be compromised by a variant. That’s what I can say with certainty.
TheStreet: And for there to be an actual new strain, as opposed to just these variants, it would have to be significantly different, right?
Racaniello: That’s right. It would have to have some substantial biological difference. Just think, there is still just one strain of H.I.V., despite infecting tens of millions of people for 40 years. So, this has been a really bad dialogue.
TheStreet: You say, don’t fuss too much whether or not these COVID vaccines prevent infection. The point is that they prevent serious disease and keep people out of the hospital, right?
Racaniello: The way vaccines work is that when you get infected after you’re vaccinated you have a memory response and it takes two or three days to kick in. In those two or three days, you are going to be infected, but the infection will be kept down, you won’t get sick and you probably won’t transmit it.
A study was publish that says that the Pfizer (PFE) - Get Report vaccine prevents infection in (most) people. I think that’s a red herring, because it’s too soon after the vaccine, when you have really high antibody levels. Try that study again in a year, and I’m sure people will be infected, although they will be protected against disease, and that’s what we care about.
TheStreet: What do you think of some of this technology coming down the line, and let’s start with progress on these micro-needle patches to replace needle shots...
Racaniello: We have to get away from needles. They are expensive. People have to be trained in how to use them. And, people are scared. I think a lot of anti-vaccine sentiment comes from the fact that parents are scared to put a needle in their kid. So, I think getting away from needles would have a lot of benefits, and micro-needle patches look really good. … I would say at some point we’re not going to need needles anymore (for vaccines). Skin is a really good place to put vaccines.
TheStreet: What about thermo-stabilization for vaccines so they don’t have to be kept in freezers?
Racaniello: The idea that you have to keep vaccines frozen is not good, because not everyone can do that. So, stabilizing vaccines with sugar, or sugar-like compounds, is going to make a big difference. These mRNA vaccines have to be kept at such a low temperature and maybe this could help us get around that.
TheStreet: And what about the future use of messenger RNA technology?
Racaniello: I think the mRNA technology is amazing. We’ve been working on it for years, but decided to try it and it works. The possibilities now – you could imagine making flu vaccines with mRNA, all kinds of other vaccines, and even therapeutics. If you wanted to deliver a protein therapeutically for a short period of time to a patient, maybe this is the way to go. I’m very bullish on mRNA vaccines.
TheStreet: Then there are the broad-spectrum antivirals. Do they hold promise – and, do we need to be careful, as we saw what happened to antibiotics for bacterial infections and the risks there?
Racaniello: We already have antivirals that will inhibit a lot of RNA viruses and others that inhibit a lot of DNA viruses. So, it would be no problem to make an antiviral that would inhibit all coronaviruses, for example. If we would have already had that at the beginning of all this, we could have stopped it altogether in China. But the problem with these broad-spectrum antivirals is … they have to get better before they can be licensed.
But then what happens? You’re going to always have resistance to any antiviral. So, you need more than one. We learned that from the HIV antivirals. We need to treat people with three, and then, you really minimize resistance. The same thing with hepatitis C virus. You use combinations of two and then you eliminate infection without resistance. I think we learned a lot from those two viruses. We can’t just use one. So, we have this molnupiravir (from Merck (MRK) - Get Report). It looks good for SARS-CoV-2, as an oral antiviral. It looks great in patients in phase two studies. But if you just license that one and use it, within months you’re going to have resistance, and it’s going to be useless, so we need to have more than one, especially at the start.
TheStreet: Jumping off that point, as these drugs and vaccines come out, the big pharma names get a lot of attention, and deservedly so – Pfizer, Moderna (MRNA) - Get Report, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca (AZN) - Get Report. But isn’t it university research that lays a lot of the ground work for what we know about viruses?
Racaniello: Sure, in the U.S., anyway, it’s a combination of the National Institutes of Health and then to a lesser extent the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and the Department of Agriculture, and then the universities kick in some, but I think they should do more….
But NIH’s budget is about $37 billion a year, and that’s just pathetic. If you think about the return on investment for things like (gene-editing tool) CRISPR, recombinant DNA, polymerase chain reaction – PCR – it’s huge. This pandemic has cost a trillion and a fraction of that could have been used beforehand to make antivirals that could have stopped the pandemic. They don’t invest enough in science research in this country. India and China are starting to outpace us. They get it. Science can save the population.
Note: This story has been updated; also the words 'strain' and 'variant' were put into italics for emphasis of their difference. To contact the writer, please email here. For more on this story, please see here.