In the news / Viruses

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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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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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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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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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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.
 
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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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Dr. Elizabeth Connick, UArizona Chief of Infectious Diseases and BIO5 member discusses the possible need for booster shots for COVID-19 vaccines, like the one from Moderna. Meantime, Dr. Connick and the UArizona College of Medicine are beginning a separate study of the Moderna vaccine. The goal of PreventCOVID is to recruit 12,000 students, at 20 universities nationwide, including UArizona. They are trying to determine if masking and social distancing are still needed for those who have been vaccinated. It will closely look at how effective the vaccine is at preventing asymptomatic infection, as we need the answers to these questions in order to guide our public policy.
 
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Can vaccinated people who are exposed to COVID-19 still shed the virus from their nose and mouth and infect others? Answering that question will influence whether masking and social distancing rules are warranted for those who have been vaccinated. That’s the goal of PreventCOVIDU, a clinical trial that is recruiting 12,000 students at more than 20 universities nationwide, including the University of Arizona. Dr. Elizabeth Connick, BIO5 member, Infectious Diseases Division chief, and professor at the UArizona College of Medicine-Tucson, co-leads the UArizona PreventCOVIDU site, and hopes to recruit up to 700 UArizona students to participate in the trial.
 
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With millions more Americans getting vaccinated every day, some have complained about fever, fatigue and other ailments they weren't expecting. Though vaccines are still very effective even without side effects, experiencing side effects are short-lived and are actually proof that your immune system is working the way it's supposed to. BIO5 associate director and UArizona EEB department head Dr. Michael Worobey says, with the first dose, you are having to generate an immune response from the ground up. The body produces antibodies, but also begins generating B cells to make targeted antibodies. The second time you give a person the shot, those cells are sitting around like a clone army and can immediately start producing a very big immune response.
 
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The university plans to move to Stage 3 the week of March 29, which will allow classes of up to 100 students to meet face to face, President Robert C. Robbins said Monday in his weekly virtual update on the university's COVID-19 status. It was announced that beginning Wednesday, March 24, at 8 a.m., any Arizonan age 16 or older will be able to register for a vaccination appointment at state sites, including the UArizona POD. New appointments at the state PODs will be released every Friday for the following week. Dr. Robbins also applauded recent research co-authored by Dr. Michael Worobey, head of the UArizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, on the origins of the novel coronavirus, likely circulating undetected for up to two months before the first human cases of COVID-19 were described in Wuhan, China.
 
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Dr. Michael Worobey, head of UArizona Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and BIO5 associate director shares how there was a perfect storm of circumstances that led to the current pandemic. According to new information, if there were very small changes in the beginning, the pandemic as we know it now, may not have spread.
 
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A new study dates emergence of the virus that causes COVID-19 to as early as October 2019. Simulations also suggest that in most cases, zoonotic viruses die out naturally before causing a pandemic.
 
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UArizona sleep researchers are working to tackle insomnia, sleep apnea and pandemic-induced "coronasomnia."
 
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Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy leads the Arizona team tackling the pandemic’s outsize effect on racial and ethnic minority communities across the country.