Looking Ahead to 2021

Updated: Jun 7

Living under Covid-19 Restrictions

I’m so glad this year will be ending soon with its political turmoil, protests, wildfires, hurricanes and the pandemic still in full swing.

As of Dec 8, the US is nearing an average of 200,000 new Covid-19 cases every day, a sign that bad weather and bad pandemic behavior are worsening the situation. As of midnight this morning, millions of Californians are under new lockdown orders. Some European countries are discussing a different safety measure: “immunity passports,” which allows for travel if one has successfully recovered from Covid-19 (CNN, Dec 6).

Fact is, our everyday lives are dominated by COVID restrictions. Wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands, and testing often are the norms, in addition to closed restaurants, gyms, and events, no gathering with people from other households, having private parties, etc. Could 2021 get any worse? Let's keep an eye on the stars.

Can you recognize me? This is how I look now when running around. Picture was taken after our first snowstorm, in October 20th.

The Great Conjunction, on December 21

Over the centuries, humanity has named star constellations and made them legends. In the past, it was believed that those constellations could predict the future. This should give us some reason to take a closer look at astrology for the new year ahead.

Of course, 2020 will end with an Astrological Bang! A great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will occur. On Dec. 21, the date of the December solstice, Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, and Saturn, the second largest, will line up perfectly to look like a double planet in the night sky. It will be the closest they’ve appeared since March 4, 1226, after almost 800 years! “The two planets have been brilliant highlights of the night sky for much of this year and are now getting closer together in advance of their super close pairing in mid-December,” NASA said.

Astrologically, Jupiter is the planet of abundance, expansion, optimism, luck, fortune, success, and generosity. Saturn is the planet of discipline, structure, systems, and authority. Basically, these two planets have nothing in common and their differences lead to tension. Now it depends on where these two planets connect. Saturn and Jupiter enter Aquarius this December. Unfortunately, Saturn is the ruling planet of Aquarius and can channel Jupiter’s generosity. Jupiter will play only the second fiddle after Saturn. For 2021 Saturn will be the task masker. It will be the time of discipline, responsibility, realization, reassessment, and refinement. All of this intense Saturn/Jupiter/Aquarius will dissipate when Jupiter leaves the Grand Conjunction in December 2021. But Saturn will still be restricting Aquarius until 2023.

During the "Great Conjunction" on Dec. 21, 2020, Jupiter and Saturn will be about one-tenth of a degree apart. (Image: © SkySafari app.)

The epochal change could come sooner than Jupiter leaves the Grand Conjunction

The past month has brought hope to get the pandemic under control. More than 90 vaccines are being developed against SARS-CoV-2 by research teams in companies and universities across the world. Researchers are using different technologies, some of which haven’t been used in a licensed vaccine before. Nature’s graphical guide explains each vaccine design:

Virus Vaccines: At least seven teams are developing vaccines using the virus itself, in a weakened or inactivated form. Many existing vaccines are made in this way, such as those against measles and polio.

Nucleic-acid vaccines: At least 20 teams are aiming to use genetic material (in the form of DNA or RNA) for a coronavirus protein that prompts an immune response. The nucleic acid is inserted into human cells, which then makes copies of the virus protein; most of these vaccines encode the virus’s spike protein. This is a recently developed method but remains unproven: no licensed vaccines use this technology.

Viral-vector vaccines: Around 25 groups are working on viral-vector vaccines. A virus such as measles or adenovirus is genetically engineered so that it can produce coronavirus proteins in the body. These viruses are weakened so they cannot cause diseases. There are two types: a) those that can still replicate within cells and b) those that cannot because key genes have been disabled. No licensed vaccines use this method, but they have a long history in gene therapy.

Protein-based vaccines: Many researchers want to inject coronavirus proteins directly into the body. Fragments of proteins or protein shells that mimic the coronavirus’s outer coat can also be used. There are two approaches.

Protein subunits: Twenty-eight teams are working on vaccines with viral protein subunits, most of them are focusing on the virus’s spike protein or a key part of it called the receptor binding domain. Similar vaccines against the SARS virus protected monkeys against infection but haven’t been tested in people.

Virus-like particles: Empty virus shells mimic the coronavirus structure but aren’t infectious because they lack genetic material. Five teams are working on ‘virus-like particle’ (VLP) vaccines, which can trigger a strong immune response, but can be difficult to manufacture.


The race for coronavirus vaccines is on

On November 9, the New York drug company Pfizer made an announcement. It offers the first vaccine candidate in the US that claims to reduce symptoms of COVID-19. The vaccine (BNT162, a nucleic-acid vaccine), which is being co-developed by BioNTech in Mainz, Germany, consists of genetic material in the form of messenger RNA (mRNA) for human cells to make the coronavirus spike protein, the immune system’s key target for this type of virus. mRNA vaccines have the potential to cause a major revolution in the pharmaceutical industry because they can be used for precise and individualized therapy and enable patients to produce therapeutic proteins in their own bodies. The production of mRNA is cost-effective, fast and flexible because it can be easily produced by in vitro transcription (Biotechnology Advances). This development leads to an exciting race to bring the first mRNA therapy to market. All mRNA competitors know that this technology will have a significant effect on the future treatment of diseases.


When will the vaccines be available?

In an effort to bring an effective COVID-19 vaccine to the US market by 2021, the White House launched Operation Warp Speed (OWS) and named five vaccine candidates as the most likely to produce a viable vaccine in a record-breaking time frame. The five vaccines include: 1) Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine, 2) AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus viral vector vaccine, AZD1222, 3) J&J’s vaccine using a common cold virus known as adenovirus type 26, or Ad26, to ferry coronavirus proteins into cells in the body, causing the body to mount an immune defense against the virus, 4) Merck's V591, a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate using a measles virus vector platform based on a vector, and 5) Pfizer and BioNTech's BNT162 SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine.

The accelerated programs are funded through $10 billion from Congress and $3 billion directed for National Institutes of Health (NIH) research. Pfizer and BioNTech decided not to accept funds from Operation Warp Speed. BioNTech did receive four hundred and forty-five million dollars in funding from the German government, and the two companies signed a contract with Operation Warp Speed to sell their first hundred million doses to the U.S., at a cost of around two billion dollars. They also relied on Graham and McLellan’s publicly funded work when they created their vaccine’s mRNA sequence.

On Dec 8, the UK started administering the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, making it the first Western country to start vaccinating its citizens outside of clinical trials. The logistical hurdles are great. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has to be stored in deep-frozen packs containing 975 doses at minus 70 ºC that cannot easily be split down into small batches to be taken to individual care homes, whose residents have been designated the first priority. It can be moved only four times and lasts for just five days at fridge temperature. The UK has ordered enough of the vaccine to inoculate a third of its population, but right now, it’s available by invitation only for those aged 80 and over, care homes staff and front-line health and social workers (CNN, 12/8/20).

On Dec 14, the US Covid-19 vaccinations are set to start after the CDC gave the final nod to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine over the weekend. Over the next few days, the vaccine should reach all of the more than 600 administration sites nationwide. Frontline and long-term care workers will be offered it first. The vaccine milestone comes as the US approaches a staggering 300,000 coronavirus deaths. Meanwhile, other countries are imposing more lockdown measures. Germany next week will go into a "hard" national lockdown until after Christmas (CNN, 12/14/20).

Besides Pfizer, Moderna is likely to be the second company to see the vaccine authorized in the United States, possibly before the end of this year.


Pfizer and Moderna

Though their journeys to a COVID-19 vaccine have been eerily similar, the companies themselves could not be more different. Pfizer is a multinational pharmaceutical giant, while Moderna is a small biotechnology company that has never brought a drug to the market. Yet when the COVID-19 pandemic began, both companies bet big on a brand-new vaccine technology called mRNA. Moderna had been working on the technology for years, while Pfizer partnered with a smaller German biotechnology company BioNTech for its mRNA research.

Moderna has been partnered with the government from the start, enjoying a longstanding research collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, accepting $955 million in funding from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Pfizer declined an initial research investment from the US government’s Operation Warp Speed, a multibillion-dollar program to accelerate the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Both companies are using mRNA technology. Moderna’s vaccine can be kept in normal freezer temperatures. Pfizer’s vaccine must be kept in a specialized ultra-cold freezer at -94 degrees Fahrenheit. Once thawed, the Moderna vaccine can be kept in a normal refrigerator for a month, while Pfizer’s can only be kept in a typical fridge for five days. With limited supplies of each vaccine available at first, enough to vaccinate only 20 million Americans by the end of the year, experts agree the U.S. needs multiple vaccines to fight the pandemic (ABC News).


The people behind Moderna’s vaccine development

Transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles

On Jan. 10, Chinese scientists uploaded the genetic sequence of a novel coronavirus, later named SARS-CoV-2, to an open-access website, GenBank. The virus had been linked to a growing number of mysterious pneumonia cases, and its rapid spread was beginning to raise alarms. A few hours later, Barney Graham woke up and saw the sequence. Though it was a Saturday, he got right to work. Days before, his lab at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) had partnered with the biotech company Moderna to design an experimental vaccine for the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19. All they’d needed to start was that sequence.

Jason McLellan, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied coronaviruses for years. When COVID-19 occurred in China at the end of last year, he began leading researchers to develop the first 3D atomic scale of the part of the virus, known as the spike protein, that attaches to and infects human cells.

Barney Graham, who, as the deputy director of NIAID's Vaccine Research Center, worked in the same building, encouraged McLellan to work with him on RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus). The Vaccine Research Center (VRC) was created 1997 to bring together scientists and physicians from different disciplines to defeat diseases, with focus on HIV. It was the brainchild of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Chemical & Engineering News). This is a great video “Inside the Lab That Invented the COVID-19 Vaccine”. Please click on the link COVID-19


Research of McLellan and Graham on SARS-CoV2

All vaccines are based on the same underlying idea: training the immune system to block a virus. Old-fashioned vaccines do this work by injecting dead or weakened viruses. Newer vaccines use distinctive bits of the virus, such as proteins. The latest genetic techniques, like messenger RNA, don’t take as long to develop because those virus bits don’t have to be generated in a lab. Instead, the vaccine delivers a genetic code that instructs cells to build those characteristic proteins themselves.

To do that, scientists have to choose which part of the virus to show the immune system. Long before the pandemic, Graham’s research had revealed that some virus proteins change shape after they break into a person’s cells. A vaccine based on the wrong shape could effectively train the immune system to be an ineffective sheriff, never stopping vandals or burglars before they wreak their havoc. Graham had used this insight to design a better vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus.

Atomic-level structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The receptor binding domain, the part of the spike that binds to the host cell, is colored green. UT Austin, McLellan Lab

Graham and his colleagues worked on the coronavirus structure which reveals the targets for vaccines and treatments (NIH). Like other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 particles are spherical and have proteins called spikes protruding from their surface. These spikes latch onto human cells, then undergo a structural change that allows the viral membrane to fuse with the cell membrane. The viral genes can then enter the host cell to be copied, producing more viruses. Recent work shows that, like the virus that caused the 2002 SARS outbreak, SARS-CoV-2 spikes bind to receptors on the human cell surface called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2).

To help support rapid research advances, the genome sequence of the new coronavirus was released to the public by scientists in China. A collaborative team including scientists from Dr. Jason McLellan’s lab at the University of Texas at Austin and the NIAID Vaccine Research Center (VRC) isolated a piece of the genome predicted to encode for its spike protein based on sequences of related coronaviruses. The team then used cultured cells to produce large quantities of the protein for analysis. The study was funded in part by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Results were published in March 2020, in Science. The researchers used a technique called cryo-electron microscopy to take detailed pictures of the structure of the spike protein. This involves freezing virus particles and firing a stream of high-energy electrons through the sample to create tens of thousands of images. These images are then combined to yield a detailed 3D view of the virus.


What will be the prediction for 2021?

In the past, it was believed that the stars could determine the future of humanity. But today, humanity can tell the future of the stars. Technology is based on hard work, understanding and curiosity-driven science. Vaccines are not miracles anymore. The reason we have COVID vaccines in a short time is that scientists have been working on the coronaviruses since SARS (2002) and MERS (2012). The messenger RNA vaccine is new. It has never been used in human medicine, an oft-repeated fact that has added to its mystique. There isn’t yet a long safety track record, but the platform has been in human tests for years, including in tens of thousands of people in the coronavirus vaccine trials. Even before the coronavirus emerged, the technology had reached a tipping point where it seemed a matter of time before it would begin to have an impact on medicine.

Masks will be necessary for the foreseeable future.

An alternative to administering just one vaccine could be a combination of two vaccines. This is what the Swedish/British concern AstraZeneca wants to find out. The hypothesis is that a combination of two vaccines leads to a longer protection. Involved in this study is the vaccine Sputnik V, developed in Russia, which shows over 90% efficacy. Sputnik V would be combined with the vaccine from Oxford-AstraZeneca which showed a 60 % efficacy. Both are vector vaccines in which the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus gene is integrated to cause a stimulation in the immune response.

What will be the prediction for 2021? To end the pandemic, the virus must either be eliminated worldwide, which most scientists agree is near-impossible because of how widespread it has become, or people must build up sufficient immunity through infections or a vaccine.

Wishing you and yours the very best of the Holiday Season and a wonderful 2021

Realistically, even with several vaccines on the market, it’s going to take a significant amount of time to get the entire country or the entire world vaccinated. As we move into next year, we probably cannot expect to see major changes in public health recommendations. Safety measures like wearing a face mask, social distancing, washing your hands frequently, won’t go away.

So, 2020 has been challenging but 2021 could add some possibilities to it. I hope 2021 feels to you at least a little less chaotic than 2020. Wishing you a socially distanced, zoom sponsored holiday events and gatherings.

Happy holidays from us to you and the very best for 2021.

Christine


And here, a slightly different take on the pandemic and vaccines from Naim.

Please click on the link: To Vax Or Not To Vax That Is The Vexing Question!