Scientists all over the world are frantically working to find ways to combat Covid-19. While several helpful discoveries are unfolding, the lessons they are learning apply to much more than the current pandemic. Subsequent studies are revealing new ways to combat familiar infections in a world where antibiotics are losing their punch, and against future pandemics that are likely to be even deadlier than the current one. There is even a new discovery of a potential advantage hidden in an older vaccine.
First in the good news department: it looks like the flu shot might be a dual purpose “two-for-one” vaccine this year. Fear of a “twindemic” outbreak, meaning a dual threat from flu and Covid-19 this winter, raised alarms that two raging contagions could quickly overwhelm hospitals and patients alike. In response, the call for everyone to take the flu vaccine echoed around the world. The thinking is that it’s better to fight one contagious infection than two simultaneously.
But that call wasn’t made without carefully weighing whether the flu vaccine might actually make Covid-19 worse in patients. Several scientific studies based on hard patient data soon put that concern to rest. In this video, a doctor explains why it was a question in the first place and how it was proved to be an unfounded concern.
Further, new recent research points to the possibility that the flu vaccine might actually provide some protection against Covid-19 too.
“In the new study, Mihai Netea, an infectious disease immunologist at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands, and his colleagues combed through their hospital’s databases to see if employees who got a flu shot during the 2019–2020 season were more or less likely to get infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. Workers who received a flu vaccine, the researchers found, were 39 percent less likely to test positive for the coronavirus as of June 1, 2020. While 2.23 percent of nonvaccinated employees tested positive, only 1.33 percent of vaccinated ones did,” according to a report in Scientific American.
The researchers were quick to caution that their research is in the early stages and more work is needed to be conclusive. However, there is reason to hope as their findings are similar to those in several other published and peer-reviewed studies.
Meanwhile, other researchers announced they have cracked the code in glycan sequencing using machine learning and bioinformatics. They explained the natural language processing (NLP)- based tools in a new paper published in Cell Host & Microbe that are now “available online as a free Wyss WebApp that researchers can use to perform their own analyses of thousands of glycans.”
Why is that a big deal? It’s because all cells are sugar-coated, so to speak, and therefore decoding that sweet shield is central to understanding all infectious mechanisms.
“The surface of every living cell, and even viruses, is covered in a mess of glycans: long, branching chains of simple sugars linked together by covalent bonds. These cell-surface sugars are crucial for regulating cell-cell contact, including the attachment of bacteria to healthy host cells,” explains the report in Phys.org.
Unfortunately, glycans are very complex and thus have been exceptionally difficult to decode and understand. This video will illustrate why glycans are important to your health and why they are such a difficult puzzle for researchers to solve.
The importance of this breakthrough cannot be overstated given human bodies are in a continuous glycans arm race where the stakes are high.
“Because glycans are the outermost layer of all living cell types, they are necessarily involved in the process of infection, both in the interaction of a prokaryotic bacterium binding to a eukaryotic host cell, and the interactions between the cells of the immune system. This has created an evolutionary arms race, in which bacterial glycans evolve to mimic those found on their hosts' cells to evade immune detection, and hosts' glycans are modified so that pathogens can no longer use them to gain access,” according to the Phys.org report.
The implications are enormous.
“The resources we developed here—SugarBase, SweetTalk, and SweetOrigins—enable the rapid discovery, understanding, and utilization of glycan sequences, and can predict the pathogenic potential of bacterial strains based on their glycans," said co-corresponding author Jim Collins, Ph.D., a Wyss Core Faculty member who is also the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering & Science at MIT, in the Phys.org article.
"As glycobiology progresses, these tools can be readily expanded and updated, eventually allowing for the precise classification of glycans and facilitating the glycan-based study of host-microbe interactions at unprecedented resolution, potentially leading to new antimicrobial therapeutics."
New and highly effective treatments were the goal all along. Today’s technologies and discoveries are rapidly putting them in reach.