In the news / Cardiovascular

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To better understand the complexities of the immune response to the novel coronavirus and evaluate the viral immunity of essential workers in the state, scientists at the University of Arizona created the AZ HEROES research study. The team led by Dr. Jeff Burgess, associate dean for research in the UArizona College of Public Health and BIO5 member, recently expanded efforts to look at how well COVID-19 vaccines are working to provide lasting immunity for high-risk populations.
 
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A $1.5 million Health Sciences grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will support research to examine how being a firefighter affects women’s stress levels, as well as their risk of cancer and reproductive health issues. The study to understand the occupational risks of these firefighters will include work from UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health faculty and BIO5 members, Drs. Jeff Burgess and Leslie Farland.
 
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Receiving the vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 comes with a deep sense of relief. The U.S. has administered nearly 58 million doses since the COVID-19 vaccines became available in December 2020. The vaccine was developed in record time, less than a year from identification of the virus, making the vaccine a marvel of clinical and basic science. It is our best defense to end a pandemic that has claimed nearly half a million lives in the U.S. As thousands of vaccines are given each day, we have taken an important step toward the goal of ending the pandemic. Researchers discuss the steps remaining to attain this goal.
 
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In early March 2020, the messages coming out at the time about the new COVID-19 disease were confusing. Public health officials decided not to recommend the use of masks to ensure that medical workers received sufficient PPE, which was in short supply. Dr. Purnima Madhivanan, University of Arizona epidemiologist and BIO5 member says that we are still paying for that decision. Dr. Madhivanan goes on to describe how things have changed and the lessons we’ve learned in navigating the pandemic.
 
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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a significant and alarming trend of increased alcohol use and abuse – especially among younger adults, males and those who have lost their jobs – according to a new study by University of Arizona researchers. The research led by professor of psychiatry in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson, director of the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, and BIO5 member Dr. Scott Killgore, found that hazardous alcohol use and likely dependence increased every month for those under lockdowns compared to those not under restrictions.
 
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During the weekly virtual briefing on the university's COVID-19 status, it was announced that University of Arizona will become a high-capacity state vaccination site, and appointments are required and can be made through the Arizona Department of Health Services website by those eligible in Priority Phase 1B. As more people become eligible for vaccination and variants continue to spread, more questions arise. Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, associate professor in the Department of Immunobiology and member of the university's BIO5 Institute, provided some insight on common questions related to the vaccine.
 
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During the weekly virtual briefing on the university's COVID-19 status, Dr. Robert C. Robbins noted that the state of Arizona no longer leads the nation in virus cases. UArizona immunobiologist and BIO5 member Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, joined President Robbins to discuss the effectiveness of existing COVID-19 vaccines on new variants of the virus. Dr. Bhattacharya discussed four variants – one first identified in the United Kingdom, one in South Africa, one in Brazil and the other in California.
 
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Doctors have been warning people that first COVID-19 immunization can have a kick to it. And now, people are starting to report that second dose can cause more side-effects than the first dose. It's not an unexpected finding. Moderna and Pfizer both said in their submissions to the US Food and Drug Administration that there was a noticeable difference in the reactions to the doses when they were testing their vaccines in volunteers. Researchers like UArizona Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department head and BIO5 associate director Dr. Michael Worbey, discuss how the body's immune response contributes to the reactions seen in some of the population.
 
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Researchers at the University of Arizona are developing a COVID-19 testing method that uses a smartphone microscope to analyze saliva samples and deliver results in about 10 minutes. The UArizona research team, led by biomedical engineering professor and BIO5 member Dr. Jeong-Yeol Yoon, aims to combine the speed of existing nasal swab antigen tests with the high accuracy of nasal swab PCR. The method will be used in conjunction with the saline swish-gargle test developed by Dr. Michael Worobey, head of the UArizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and associate director of the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute.
 
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Pima County has begun administering Phase 1B vaccinations and in order to vaccinate the population as quickly as possible, each vaccination site in the county will prioritize a specific population within the Phase 1B.1 group. Upon vaccination, especially after the second dose,it should be noted that some people might feel sick. But that's an important part of the body learning to fight the real virus if exposed, said UArizona immunobiologist Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, a member of the university's BIO5 Institute. The more people that get the vaccine, the faster the transmission rates in our community will fall.
 
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In late December, scientists in California began searching coronavirus samples for a fast-spreading new variant that had just been identified in Britain. They found it, though in relatively few samples. But in the process, the scientists made another unwelcome discovery: California had produced a variant of its own. In December, researchers in Britain found the variant to COVID-19, B.1.1.7, which is about 50 percent more transmissible than previous versions of the virus, and a driving factor in the surge of cases and hospitalizations there now. B.1.1.7 was in the United States in early November, according to a study by University of Arizona biologists including Dr. Michael Worobey Evoluntary Biologist, and BIO5 associate director. That would mean the variant had been circulating for two months before being detected. Other scientists are also looking more closely at the rise in frequency of the variant in California, searching for evidence that could determine whether biology or chance is to blame for the rise in the presence of the virus.
 
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As COVID-19 vaccines roll out around the world, it's important to maintain practices like social distancing to protect those for whom the vaccine might not work. “When community transmission rates are very high, as they are now, you will hear of people getting infected even after the vaccines,” said Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, immunologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and BIO5 member. “But as more and more people get vaccinated, the chances of that happening will drop by a lot. At that point, we can very much look forward to going out to dinner, etc., and still be safe.”
 
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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.