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more on rapid antigen testing, and the vaccine race

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So to continue with this issue of rapid at-home testing, there are/were many tests of a more simple and potentially cheaper type being manufactured, but they were all diagnostic tests (i.e tests that require expert interpretation as part of a diagnosis), and even if they’d been scaled up fairly rapidly they wouldn’t meet the kind of demand Dr Mina was envisaging. That’s to say, not doubling the tests available but multiplying those tests by a hundred or more, for nationwide availability in the US. 

I want to get clear here, for myself, about the difference between an antigen test and a PCR test. An antigen test detects viral proteins. The paper strip test Dr Mina refers to contains antibodies that will bind to the antigens, or proteins, if those antigens are present in sufficient numbers. The presence of those antigens, or viral proteins, indicates that the virus is active – it is producing the antigens via the ribosomes of host cells. The PCR test detects viral RNA, whether or not the RNA is active. And so the antigen test reveals infectivity. The PCR test more often than not finds inactive viral fragments, since this RNA remains in the cell for some time after the period of infectivity, the upswing, which is relatively short. 

Dr Mina has this to say about the sensitivity of the two test types. The PCR test will pick up virus from a few days to six weeks (or more) after infection, but the subject may be infective, that is, able to spread the virus, for the first two weeks (or less) after acquiring it. So its sensitivity to detecting an infective subject is not so great as its sensitivity to the virus itself (living and reproducing, or dead, or disabled). An antigen will be testing negative, both in the very early phase of infection, when the virus isn’t yet producing enough viral protein to show up on the test, and in the long phase when the virus, or parts of it, are still present but no longer replicating and infecting. So it is actually more sensitive to infectivity, which is exactly what’s required. And this essentially has to do with the frequency with which the antigen test can be used, because the PCR test has this lag time built into it. 

It’s hard to believe that it’s this simple and straightforward, and that supposedly smart regulators aren’t jumping on this and getting these tests out there. Could I be missing something? I note that Dr Mina uses transmissible rather than infective, by the way.

So why aren’t such tests available? In the USA, it’s because it sounds a lot like a diagnostic, which requires approval or licensing from an organisation called CLIA – but that’s for them to work out. As to the situation here in Australia, which hasn’t had to deal with anything like the mess they’ve made for themselves in the USA, such a testing system would still help to detect spreaders, providing there was blanket use, and this would mean fewer lock-downs and less economic impact. As would be the case globally. An ABC article from late October features an interview with Prof. Deborah Williamson, director of clinical microbiology at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, who recognises the value of rapid antigen testing, but feels that we need ‘to better understand their effectiveness as a screening tool in different epidemiological contexts’. This is understandably cautious, but then there isn’t the urgency in Australia that there so obviously is in the USA. But the USA has another major problem, which is almost incomprehensible considering the disaster that has unfolded there – and that is lack of compliance. Even if rapid antigen testing – cheap and in such supply that it could be utilised on a daily basis by the whole population – even if this was made available, there’s surely a major question as to whether most people would use the test any time they looked a bit peely-wally [under the weather], let alone when they were completely asymptomatic. So you could say that Americans are paying the price for their ‘rights without responsibility’ ideology – not shared by all Americans of course, but apparently shared by too many for them to escape from this, or any other pandemic, lightly. 

Anyway, if we imagine a world, or a country, of largely compliant, responsible individuals, and widely available, cheap or free antigen testing, there would be no need for the quite onerous contact tracing mechanisms that we now have – signing in by phone or by hand at restaurants, pubs and the like – because those testing positive at home wouldn’t be attending those places until they tested negative again. Businesses could run, schools, airlines, etc. Economies could function almost as normal. 

Of course now we have the vaccine, or almost. So far though it’s the Pfizer/BioNTech two-shot vaccine, which needs to be kept at way below zero (celsius) temperature, so, difficult to scale up and make available to those without proper facilities. No sign of that one coming to Australia for a while. I read an article yesterday, ‘The Amazing Vaccine Race’, in Cosmos mag. It outlines some of the contenders – the companies and the vaccine types. It points out that some companies are trying to play the long game, to try not for the first vaccine, or one of the first, but the best. The problem though, says, Nicolai Petrovsky, whose company Vaxine is based here in Adelaide, is that ‘the first runners end up getting all the resources’. And it may take quite a while to work out the best, and if the early runners turn out to be good enough, we may never find out which would’ve been the best. Vaxine is currently trialling a covid19 vaccine which combines the virus’s spike protein with an adjuvant (a treatment which enhances the immune response of the vaccine) based on a plant polysaccharide. And there are some 160 other contenders, according to the article. One in Sydney is combining the spike protein with bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) which has been shown to reduce mortality from a range of viral respiratory infections. And there are others, just sticking with Australia, some with a degree of complexity that defeats me, for now. However, there are scant resources for local production here.

Although phase 3 trials of the current front-runners tested for safety among many thousands, it’s unlikely that scaling up to the millions will be without casualties, however minimal. And there’s the question of long-term immunity, which can’t really be tested for in this rushed situation. So it will be very interesting to see which of the current contenders wins out in the ultra-long run, or if something we’ve barely heard of yet finally proves the best option. 

References

Rapid Coronavirus Testing – At HOME (COVID-19 Antigen Tests) with Dr. Michael Mina (video)

https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-10-24/rapid-antigen-tests-for-coronavirus-screening/12808176

Dyani Lewis, ‘The Amazing Vaccine Race’, in Cosmos: the science of everything, issue 88, September-December 2020.

Written by stewart henderson

December 9, 2020 at 5:44 pm

the rapid testing system that went begging

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this is a screen shot taken from the video – the Ct values are inversely proportional to the viral load, and are plotted on a logarithmic scale (not drawn to scale though!). the x-axis is the infection time scale. viral particles can remain in the host for some time

For something completely different, I want to return to the matter of this pandemic, which in the past 24 hours has claimed more reported deaths in the USA since it began – a disaster of mismanagement, neglect, and of course the selfish civil disregard so typical of that country. 
But of course that’s a generalisation, there are plenty of productive, socially concerned, often frustrated individuals trying to buck the trend, and Dr Michael Mina is one of them. He’s been advocating for a type of cheap, home-based, fast turnaround test for this virus (actually for the proteins that the virus produces via the host’s own ribosomes) which would vastly reduce spread, eliminate the need for contact tracing, and help the economy. Had this type of monoclonal antibody testing been scaled up at the outset, and made available worldwide, it’s likely that countless lives would have been saved. And it may well be generalised for other outbreaks. 

So I’m writing this based on a video I watched, called ‘Rapid Coronavirus Testing – At HOME (COVID-19 Antigen Tests) with Dr. Michael Mina’. The video was produced in late July, and of course no progress has been made, and in the US the case numbers and the death numbers have jumped to the highest so far recorded, and rising. 

So Dr Mina is a well-qualified immunologist whose impressive bio is detailed in the video. His ideas on this topic are published in a paper entitled ‘Test sensitivity is secondary to frequency and turnaround time for Covid-19 surveillance’, which has eight co-authors. The title captures the whole argument really, but I want to clarify to myself and others these issues of sensitivity and frequency. The video begins with a point-by-point comparison of the ‘paper antigen testing’ Dr Mina advocates, and RT-PCR (reverse transcriptase – polymerised chain reaction) tests, which are currently considered the gold standard. Firstly, the antigen tests are potentially much cheaper, once scaled up, and can be made for $1 to $2 per test. The PCR tests currently cost between $35 and $100 each. Secondly, the result of the antigen test can be known in 15 minutes, while the PCR test takes a minimum of 3 days, sometimes 7 days or longer. Third, the antigen test can be self-administered at home, while the PCR cannot. Fourth, the antigen test can be used daily, or three times a week, or with as much regularity as can be wished for or afforded, whereas this isn’t really viable for the expensive PCR test. Fifth, the simple antigen test can easily be mass-produced, but the lab processing involved in the PCR test would make this difficult. The sixth comparison favours PCR, which has a high sensitivity at over 90%, meaning that if there’s any virus present, it is over 90% likely to detect it, whereas the antigen test has a likelihood of around 55%. However, the antigen test will be able to pick up the majority of infectious cases, which is the key requirement. This will be explained later. 

As Dr Mina points out, the rapid antigen test is a public health measure, unlike vaccines and therapeutics, which are medical interventions. The vital point he is making is that much investment is being put into the medical interventions, which, if successful, will bring solid returns on those investments. And so that is why so many private firms are competing for producing these ‘quick’ and hopefully effective, fixes, whereas there’s no return on investment for a public health measure such as a rapid, effective testing regime, even though this would be the best thing for keeping an economy running during a pandemic. It would require effective, good faith governance – something in short supply, particularly in the US. 

So there’s a lack of financial incentive to scale up this rapid testing system, and according to Dr Mina, there’s also a regulatory problem. There’s no technical problem to scaling up, but as Mina says, there is a grey zone for this kind of testing which means it doesn’t quite fall under FDA’s guidelines, and there seems to be no governmental will (given that the USA currently has no federal government, and hasn’t really had one for four years) to provide a regulatory pathway for this kind of unique public health tool. FDA or other authorised approval is essential for mass-manufacture, and this isn’t forthcoming. As Mina says, this isn’t a diagnostic test, and isn’t meant to compete as a diagnostic test, it’s meant as a public health measure to prevent spread. So it’s a human and political problem, and this period in the USA is obviously bad for that sort of thing.  

So the regulators appear obsessed with high-sensitivity testing, which tends to be expensive. If PCR testing could be done cheaply, at home, with rapid turnaround, that would be ideal, bit it isn’t going to happen, for a variety of reasons. This sensitivity issue needs to be looked at more closely, in the context of a rapidly multiplying virus, within a particular host. The rapid antigen tests may be a thousand times less sensitive than PCR, which sounds useless but not if you understand the virus and its action. It starts with a tiny number of parts per millilitre, and when it gets to a larger number, the PCR test will pick it up, and then when it gets much larger still, the androgen test will pick it up. But even then, the viral load will not be enough to effect transmission (and this will vary between individuals). And the whole aim is to prevent transmission, rather than the virus itself. The antigen test will tell you that you are transmitting (more later), and is effective in stopping or breaking that transmission chain. Testing frequency becomes more important than sensitivity. PCR tests conducted weeks apart could miss a whole infection cycle.   

The FDA at the time had a news release entitled ‘FDA posts new template for at-home and over-the-counter diagnostic tests for use in non-lab settings, such as homes, offices and schools’, which sounds like just what the doctor ordered, but Mina points out that, though the regulators are showing willingness to relinquish testing power to members of the public to some degree, they’re clearly not willing to swap what is in essence a lab-based, PCR-type test, with all its super-sensitivity, for a rapid antigen test. So, no real possibility of rapid turnaround, and they require reporting of all positive and negative tests to the relevant lab or the Department of Health, rather than at-home monitoring. Among other things that means more work and more expenses for the monitoring company. Most results would obviously be negative, so a great deal of logistics to cover every negative result, which people probably wouldn’t comply in reporting anyway. So, not very viable. Dr Mina compared it to cheap instant coffee compared to those super-expensive Nespresso coffee machines that presumably the elites buy. The instant coffee version does the job without the bells and whistles, and he believes it’s the best intervention possible, short of a vaccine.

And that was in July, and the current death rate and case rate are breaking all records, but of course a vaccine is round the corner – maybe. So the moment has probably gone, but the lessons still need to be learned, by a more responsible administration. I will keep on this topic for the next couple of posts.

Reference

Rapid Coronavirus Testing – At HOME (COVID-19 Antigen Tests) with Dr. Michael Mina (video)

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 5, 2020 at 10:06 pm

the science of Covid-19: vaccines and trials in the pipeline

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Experts are still claiming 18 months at best for an effective vaccine, and with reports of re-infection, or resurgent virus activity in supposedly recovered subjects, it has become clear (or seems to have?) that we don’t know quite what we’re dealing with. Which of course poses problems for immunologists.

Still, the race is on. The WHO recently reported ‘more than 5 dozen vaccine candidates being pursued around the world’. The essential reason for the ‘delay’, however, is the three-phase human testing program that has become de rigueur for vaccine development. This video from YourekaScience, made five years ago, goes through the process, and note that it talks about a 6 to 10 year process, sometimes longer. The first phase focuses on safety (e.g. are there notable side-effects?), tolerability (does the vaccine cause pain, if so, what type, how long etc) and immune reaction (does the immune response look like being effective?). Phase 2 will involve larger numbers of volunteers to further test safety, and to determine proper dosage and timing of vaccines for strongest immune response. If all goes well, testing will move to phase 3, the largest trials, in which the drug will be compared with placebo and its ability to prevent infection can be more accurately measured – for example, whether it’s more effective in some sub-groups than others. Efficacy will determine approval, with possible recommendations, positive or negative, for different sub-groups. (I should add, after further reading, that stage 2 trials are often further divided into a and b phases).

So first-step safety tests on individuals have begun, in China, the USA and no doubt elsewhere. China’s vaccine is a version of a genetically engineered product developed against Ebola, while the USA’s different candidates are made from copies of a part of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic code.

Meanwhile, in Western Australia, volunteers are being recruited from the staff of a group of hospitals for an interesting experiment. They will be given the Bacillus Calmette–Guerin (BCG) injection, developed against tuberculosis. The jab is also known to boost immunity to other respiratory infections, and has a long history of safe clinical use. The trial has already been endorsed by the WHO. A similar trial, using healthcare workers, is planned for South Australia.

Australia also has a potential Covid-19 vaccine ready to go into first-phase testing in mid-May. It’s called NVX-CoV2373 (remember that name – or maybe not). Its developer, the biopharma company Novovax Inc, has partnered with Australia’s Nuclear Network, a clinical trials specialist, for the trials. The online mag Biowold reports:

The candidate, NVX-CoV2373, is going to have “a very similar safety profile” to Novavax’s phase III Nanoflu nanoparticle vaccine and, given preclinical findings, appears to be stable and productive, [Gregory Glenn, Novovax president of R&D said]. “The conformation is exactly what you need. And now we’re seeing that manifest after immunizing animals [in which we’re seeing] very, very high neutralizing antibody, which I think everyone would agree is highly likely to be protective,” he added.

Although we may be able, with the sort of effective collaboration this pandemic requires, to reduce the time-frame for a vaccine, reducing the current fatality rate is also a priority, hence the importance of the Australian (and other) trials. We are benefitting from the experience of a host of immunologists and biochemists whose experience has helped us to to look at solutions in this area. An article in The Lancet from a week ago is a good example. The authors suggest that anti-tumour necrosis factor (TNF) therapy is a therapy well worth trying:

Anti-tumour necrosis factor (TNF) antibodies have been used for more than 20 years in severe cases of autoimmune inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or ankylosing spondylitis. There are ten (as reported on Sept 29, 2019) US Food and Drug Administration approved and four off-label indications for anti-TNF therapy,4 indicating that TNF is a valid target in many inflammatory diseases. TNF is present in blood and disease tissues of patients with COVID-195 and TNF is important in nearly all acute inflammatory reactions, acting as an amplifier of inflammation. We propose that anti-TNF therapy should be evaluated in patients with COVID-19 on hospital admission to prevent progression to needing intensive care support.

Whether the WHO or national government bodies or private companies take up this proposal is a question, but this is a time when investments of this sort should be made, and the results shared worldwide. This and other pandemics should provide the best opportunity for the kind of collaboration that transcends boundaries and individual reputations. We’ve done inspiring work on so many diseases that once thrived in our own ancestral communities – smallpox, leprosy, cholera, typhoid, scurvy, polio, tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough and many more. Our detailed knowledge of our immune system and how it can be primed and harnessed is distributed in researchers and their writings worldwide. All we need is the collective will and the appropriate collaborative approach to take advantage, for humanity’s sake, of all we’ve learned.

References

https://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/search-covid-19-vaccine-heats-china-us-70147204

Vaccine Clinical Trials 101: How do we develop and test new vaccines? (video)

https://7news.com.au/lifestyle/health-wellbeing/coronavirus-vaccine-west-australian-hospital-workers-to-take-part-in-covid-19-experiment-c-974237

https://www.9news.com.au/national/coronavirus-cure-covid-19-vaccine-testing-in-australia-novavax-nucleus-network/73bb2d7b-f7bf-4f83-8a30-74cd1d6c3bff

https://www.bioworld.com/articles/434286-novavax-coronavirus-vaccine-bellerophon-covid-19-therapy-near-phase-i8

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2020 at 8:55 pm

the science of Covid19: testing

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filched from the excellent JAMA website

So here in South Australia we have fairly drastic social distancing rules with pubs and restaurants and many businesses closed and so on, though in terms of case numbers we’re doing better than other states, and Australia in general is doing a lot better than other countries with comparable populations. Our crude case fatality rates (deaths per million) are smaller than any country ahead of us in number of cases in general – we’re currently ranked twentieth in case numbers. All of this is based on worldometer figures, which we can only hope are as reliable as they can be.

Our relative success has been attributed by some to our testing system. Worldometer has recently added a couple of new lines to their country-by-country statistics, ‘total tests’ and ‘tests per million’, which gives some idea of the testing rate, though little idea of the testing criteria, or the spread of testing throughout the country. According to these figures, the testing rate here is impressive compared to any other country of similar or larger population. Of course, there are just too many variables to make a direct connection between testing and fatality rates, but all experts agree that high rates of testing are beneficial. Worldometer also allows us to make some telling comparisons. For example, neighbours Sweden and Norway are recording a similar number of Covid-19 cases, 6400 and 5500 respectively, though Sweden has almost twice the population. That looks bad for Norway. But Sweden has had 373 fatalities compared to only 62 for Norway. That looks very bad for Sweden. And when we compare the testing, we find that, for half the population, Norway has carried out almost three times the number of tests that Sweden has. That’s almost 6 times the rate of testing. In fact Norway has the highest testing rate in Europe (apart from those with much smaller populations such as Iceland and Luxembourg). Other countries that appear to have greatly reduced fatality rates through comprehensive testing include Germany and South Korea. Clearly, large scale testing is working to keep fatalities down. It’s not unreasonable to attribute the escalating rate of infections in the US to the lack of a co-ordinated and comprehensive testing system, though the fatality rate there is relatively low. It’s clear that, with testing as well as with other responses, the states have failed to unite, largely due to a complete absence of federal governance.

The essential test for Covid-19 is polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and the detection process is well explained in the illustration above, and a little more fully on the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) website. Or, at least, I assume so, as a non-scientific person. But in order to fully understand the process I need to capture it in my own words.

So SARS CoV-2 infects humans by binding to their ACE2 receptors by means of their spike proteins, one of four types of structural proteins pertaining to the virus. Studies have found that SARS CoV-2 has ‘a higher affinity to human ACE2 than the original SARS virus strain’, which presumably goes some way to explain its greater infectiousness. A PCR test is able to detect specific genetic material within the virus. A swab sample is taken from the throat or the nose or the lower respiratory tract or the stool, depending on test type. The JAMA website puts it this way:

After a sample is collected, RNA, which is part of the virus particle, is extracted and converted to complementary DNA for testing. The PCR test involves binding sequences on the DNA that only are found in the virus and repeatedly copying everything in between. This process is repeated many times, with doubling of the target region with each cycle. A fluorescent signal is created when amplification occurs, and once the signal reaches a threshold, the test result is considered positive. If no viral sequence is present, amplification will not occur, resulting in a negative result.

Australia’s Department of Health describes two types of test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, nucleic acid/PCR tests (as above) and serology antibody tests, but the department sounds a warning:

The reliability of COVID-19 tests is uncertain due to the limited evidence base. Available evidence mainly comes from symptomatic patients, and their clinical role in detecting asymptomatic carriers is unclear.

This statement is dated March 27, and with the fast-moving situation, may no longer be relevant. And speaking of fast-moving situations, here in South Australia we’ve had our first recorded death from the virus, while I’ve been writing this. There’s also news overnight that a tiger from the Bronx zoo has tested positive. This has been confirmed by further testing. Other cats there are showing milder versions of the same symptoms but haven’t been tested. The tiger is described as being in a stable condition, and authorities are claiming that there’s no evidence of transmission from zoo or domestic animals to humans, but this kind of news may well lead to a public panic. And after all, absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean evidence of absence. There’s no doubt that the tiger’s infection raises a host of worrisome questions. Was the tiger infected by humans, as seems likely? If not, where did it get the virus from? And if the other cats are positive (they haven’t been tested due to problems with anaesthetics), then where will it end?

Antibody tests look not at infection but immunity. An effective test will show whether a person’s immune system has detected and neutralised the virus. Demand for these types of tests is extremely high, as immunity would mean that these people would be able to return to normal activity., with all the attendant economic benefits. Antibody detection would be of particular importance for current health workers. Such tests would show that the workers have already been infected by SARS-CoV-2 (perhaps without symptoms), and have developed immunity. Widespread use of the tests would also reveal the number of asymptomatic cases. Currently the number of people infected can only be an estimate based on current testing (the worldometer figures tell of confirmed cases, which can only be confirmed by testing). Children, for example, may be infected (and infectious) but asymptomatic, but the extent of this is pure guesswork. Getting real data would be useful in determining schools’ operations.

However, there are difficulties with antibody tests. According to The Lancet,

the technology behind antibody tests is fundamentally distinct and generally harder to get right. “If you have a sequence today, you have a PCR tomorrow”, says Linfa Wang, director of Duke-NUS Medical School’s programme in emerging infectious diseases, in Singapore. “Whether the sensitivity [of PCR] will be enough is another thing, but usually in the first round, it will give you data that you can use. Serology is different.”

One of the issues is knowing which protein, or antigen, on the virus to target. The spike protein is seen as the obvious target, as it’s the means of entering the host cell. Virologists in China have been using the spike protein (due to its specificity) and the nucleocapsid protein (due to its abundance). At least ten antibody test types have already been used throughout China. Specificity is important because, according to The Lancet, ‘the more unique [the protein] is, the lower the odds of cross-reactivity with other coronaviruses—false positives resulting from immunity to other coronaviruses’. These include those that cause the common cold, as well as SARS-CoV.

So that’s enough for now, I’ll continue to try and inform myself, having nothing better to do, and post some more results from that process next time. Keep well!

References

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2764238

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30788-1/fulltext

https://www.livescience.com/how-coronavirus-tests-work.html

Written by stewart henderson

April 7, 2020 at 12:34 pm