A Possible Treatment for COVID-19

A transmission electron microscope image of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The spikes surrounding the virus make it look like a crown, which is where it gets its name. (click for credit)

While countries are scrambling to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus), doctors are trying to find the best treatment for it. In three separate studies, a surprising candidate has been found: the anti-malarial drug chloroquine. In a letter that was published on February 19th, three Chinese scientists reported that more than 100 patients were given the drug. Based on the patients’ responses, they write:

…chloroquine phosphate is superior to the control treatment in inhibiting the exacerbation of pneumonia, improving lung imaging findings, promoting a virusnegative conversion, and shortening the disease course…

The authors also report that there were no adverse side effects noted in the patients.

A report in Spanish (translation here) concurs. It discusses both the results seen in patients and the results of experiments where primate cells are infected with the virus and then treated with chloroquine. The conclusion is as follows:

Chloroquine can both prevent and treat coronavirus in primate cells…According to South Korean and China human treatment guidelines, chloroquine is effective in treating COVID-19. Given chloroquine’s human safety profile and existence, it can be implemented today in the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world.

Finally, a study published in the journal Nature confirms that when primate cells are infected by the virus that causes COVID-19, both chloroquine and an antiviral drug known as remdesivir were effective at fighting it. The researchers state:

Our findings reveal that remdesivir and chloroquine are highly effective in the control of 2019-nCoV infection in vitro. Since these compounds have been used in human patients with a safety track record and shown to be effective against various ailments, we suggest that they should be assessed in human patients suffering from the novel coronavirus disease.

Now, of course, these studies are far from conclusive. However, I expect that doctors will judiciously test the treatment on patients who volunteer for it. Hopefully, that will allow us to learn more. Perhaps an effective treatment is on the horizon!

More Thoughts on the New Coronavirus

An infographic adapted from one produced by the CDC (click for larger version)

A few readers have sent me questions regarding the coronavirus that is spreading across the world, so I thought I would make a post answering those questions and providing some resources you can use to deal with the issue. Please note, however, that I am neither a medical doctor nor a biologist. As a result, I don’t claim any expertise on the matter. However, there are some misconceptions about the virus that are easily cleared up, and there are some facts that anyone who can understand the scientific literature should share.

First, a few facts. The term “coronavirus” refers to a very large group of viruses that circulate mostly among mammals and birds. However, some are able to infect people. Most coronaviruses that infect people produce mild illnesses, but some (like this one) produce potentially fatal ones. The coronavirus that is in the news right now is one that has not been seen before. This is not unusual. When an animal is infected with two different versions of the coronavirus, they can mix together, producing a new (usually called “novel”) coronavirus. This particular novel coronavirus has been charmingly named SARS-CoV-2, and it causes the disease referred to as COVID-19. Because of that, it is sometimes referred to as the “COVID-19 virus.”

The reason it has been given the name SARS-CoV-2 is that its genetic sequences indicate it is very similar to the virus that caused the SARS outbreak of 2003. Based on that sequence, it is thought that the virus originated in bats, but it might have passed through another animal (possibly a scaly anteater) before infecting people. Most importantly, there is strong evidence against the idea that it was genetically engineered. This is because the way it infects people is quite different from what would have been predicted given our current knowledge about these viruses. In other words, it is very hard to believe that anyone knowledgable enough to engineer a virus would purposefully make the genetic sequences that end up allowing the virus to be so good at infecting people.

The illness caused by this virus is flu-like, but it is much more serious than the flu. The death rate caused by the flu changes from year-to-year, depending on the strains that circulate. However, on average, the flu has a death rate of about 0.1%. That means for every 1,000 people who get the flu, 1 will die. Even though that is a low death rate, a lot of people get the flu. As a result, millions of people die from the flu every year. We don’t know the death rate for this new virus, since we don’t really know how many people have actually been infected, but the best estimate so far is that the death rate is about 2%. That means this virus is thought to be 20 times more deadly than the flu virus.

Second, the resources. The infographic above has been adapted from one that was produced by the CDC. The university at which I teach has asked all its professors to post this electronically as well as wherever students might be found. It is basic, but nevertheless, it does contain some helpful information. This link will take you to the latest information regarding where the virus has been detected, how many people have been infected, and how many people have died.

In general, the best way to avoid being infected by this virus is to avoid other people and avoid going to places where it has been found. The virus spreads most effectively when an infected person is within a few feet of an uninfected person. However, it might also be transferred by surfaces. If someone sneezes on a surface and someone else touches that surface, the virus can be transferred to the hand. Then, if that person touches his or her mouth, nose, or eyes, it is possible for the virus to begin an infection. Thus, you need to wash your hands a lot and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth in between washings.

The most important thing to remember is that while the illness caused by this virus has a death rate that is thought to be about 2% on average, it is significantly higher for elderly people, people who are already sick with something else, and people with weakened immune systems. Thus, if you show any of the signs of the illness (fever, cough, shortness of breath) and think you might have been in contact with someone who has the virus, you should seek medical help.

While there are several groups working on a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus, the earliest a vaccine could possibly be ready would be at least a year from now. My guess, given that I am anything but an expert about these things, is that it will not be needed. The disease seems to have already plateaued in China, and I expect other countries to be a bit better at reducing the spread. Thus, I expect that the spread of the disease will slow down significantly before a vaccine can be approved for use. I could easily be wrong about that, however.

That Virus in China

People in China wearing surgical masks. Photo copyright shutterstock/testing.

If you haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the international news, you might not know that there is a serious virus spreading in China. As of yesterday at 3 PM Eastern, 640 people have been infected, and 17 have died. Most of the cases are in China, where the virus originated, but there have been four cases in Thailand, two in Vietnam, and one each in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the United States. While there is always a chance that the virus could produce a pandemic, officials in China seem to be doing all they can to keep that from happening.

Several cities have suspended bus and train service in an attempt to keep people the virus from spreading through travel. The city in which it originated (Wuhan) has been completely shut down. A colleague of mine says that her son is in that city, and all transportation has ceased. Businesses (even grocery stores) are not allowed to open. People must make do with the food they currently have until the government decides that it is safe for businesses to open again. Currently, they are hoping to allow businesses to open on Tuesday. The virus is very dangerous, but the Chinese government seems to be taking it seriously. Only time will tell if their efforts will be enough.

What is this virus? It is a strain of coronavirus, which causes respiratory infections. It usually gets spread from animal to human, but in some cases, it can be spread from human to human as well. This version of the virus seems to be one of those. Most coronavirus infections produce mild symptoms. In fact, nearly everyone has had a coronavirus infection at one time or another. However, the severity of the infection depends on the proteins that the virus carries. The SARS epidemic of 2003 was caused by a particularly virulent coronavirus, resulting in more than 770 deaths worldwide. The hope is that the spread of this coronavirus can be better contained.

Why did it just appear? When the cell of an organism is infected with two different viruses, a new virus, called a recombinant virus, can be produced, mixing characteristics from each. That seems to be what has happened here. According to a study that was just published, it looks like the virus is a combination of a bat coronavirus and another one that cannot be identified. The study looked at the way the proteins are coded, and the authors claim that the most likely animal that spread the virus is a snake. That would be odd, since coronaviruses are only known to infect mammals. However, Wuhan does have open markets where live snakes are sold, and since that’s where the virus originated, it could have come from a snake.

Regardless of what animal it came from, once this new virus (which is really just a combination of two old viruses) was produced, it then was transmitted to a person. Once again, that’s usually the way a coronavirus is spread to people, but this one has been confirmed to spread from human to human, which is why China is clamping down on travel. The virus can be spread through the air, through personal contact, or from touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands. Because of this, many people in China are wearing masks like you see in the photo above (which was taken a long time ago), and they are washing their hands regularly. Currently, there is no cure for the viral infection. The best thing that can be done is to treat its symptoms (fever, cough, and breathing difficulties) so that the body’s immune system has time to conquer it.

We should pray that the Chinese government is taking this situation as seriously as it seems to be, so that a deadly epidemic is averted. Also, we should pray for the people in the cities that are on lockdown. Not only are they the ones most at risk for the infection, but their lives have also been severely disrupted. Some may even have to deal with hunger or thirst caused by the precautions that are being taken.

UPDATE (02/26/2020): Here is an analysis from the WHO. If it is correct, then the epidemic is declining, and the fatality rate outside Wuhan is much less than what was originally feared.

UPDATE: My colleague, whose son is in Wuhan, says that the grocery stores were open on Sunday (January 26th) and well stocked. He was able to buy enough food to last a month if necessary. According to him, there was no panic. However, the city is still on lockdown, and the infection is still spreading. As of the morning of Monday, January 27th, there have been five confirmed cases in the U.S. Not of the U.S. cases have resulted in death, but at least 56 are dead in China.

A Dirty Childhood Can Lead to a Healthy Life

A happy child plays in a muddy river (photo copyright Shutterstock/Christin Lola)

One of the proposed explanations for the rise in allergies seen in the industrialized world is the hygiene hypothesis. It argues that many children who live in industrialized nations are raised in an environment that is just too clean. Because of this, they are not exposed to infectious and foreign agents that properly “train” their immune system. In addition, they miss out on some of the good bacteria and fungi that would take up residence in their body and support their immune system. As a result, the natural development of the immune system is stunted, and the body doesn’t know how to properly respond to certain assaults.

While there is a lot of good indirect evidence to support the hypothesis, the only controlled studies that support it have been done on mice. Of course, it is hard to do a controlled study on people, because you would have to get two similar groups of people and force them to live in different environments (one clean and one dirty) for a long period of time, and that’s just not practical. However, I recently came across a study which comes close to doing that, and the results strongly support the hygiene hypothesis.

The authors cleverly made use of an artificial separation of people that occurred more than 70 years ago. At the end of World War II, Finland had to give up some of its land to Russia, creating a new border between the two countries. Over time, the people who lived on either side of the border developed very different lifestyles. The Russian side of the border stayed largely agrarian, while the Finnish side became more urban. Since these two populations started out very similar but ended up very different, the authors decided to compare their susceptibility to allergies, and the results were rather astonishing.

In 2003, the authors randomly selected 98 Finnish children and 82 Russian children who were 7-10 years of age. They took skin samples and nose mucus samples, and they asked the parents to report on the childrens’ susceptibility to certain allergies. They also measured the sensitivity to certain allergens by looking at chemical levels in their blood. They then did a follow-up study of the same children roughly 10 years later. The results remained consistent between the initial and follow-up studies: The Finnish children were three to ten times more likely than the Russian children to have allergic reactions like asthma, hay fever, eczema, and a runny nose.

When the authors examined the skin and nose mucus samples, they found that the Russian children had a lot more bacteria in their skin and mucus than the Finnish children. In addition, the diversity of bacterial species was much greater in the Russian children. So the children who had more bacteria and lots of different species of bacteria living in and on their bodies were less likely to have allergies!

The authors specifically note that the largest disparities between the two groups were in bacterial species from the genus Acinetobacter. As the authors state:

Our results also suggest that high abundance and diversity of Acinetobacter might contribute to the low allergy prevalence in Russia. Implications of early‐life exposure to Acinetobacter should be further investigated.

In other words, the authors think that at least part of the reason that the Finnish children had more allergies is that they weren’t exposed to enough Acinetobacter. Where do these bacteria live? In dirt and water. So based on the results of this study, children who grow up doing things like the child in the picture at the top of the post are less likely to develop allergies later in life!

As a creationist, this doesn’t surprise me at all. God created us to interact with His creation, and when we try to isolate ourselves from it, we suffer.

When Is a Person Actually Dead?

A student recently sent me an article from Live Science that reports on a man who was declared dead by three doctors. Four hours later, as he was being prepped for an autopsy (the marks to guide the autopsy had already been put on him), he started snoring! As of the time the article was written, he was alive and in the intensive care unit of a hospital. The student asked how such a thing could happen. Was it incompetence on the part of the doctors, or is it difficult to tell whether or not a person is dead? I told the student that while I couldn’t address the details of this particular case since I wasn’t involved, I could tell him that there have been cases over the years where the experts were convinced that a person was dead when, in fact, that person wasn’t.

I first heard this kind of story when I was preparing for a talk about miracles. I ran across the case of Emma Brady. She had been declared dead after exhibiting no vital signs. She was placed in a body bag and taken to the morgue. When her children arrived about an hour later to say their goodbyes, they found her gasping for air. The administrator of the hospital said that after the family told a nurse about what they had seen:

Miraculously, the patient exhibited vital signs that were absent previously.

Over the years, I have kept my eye out for stories like this, and while they are rare, they are most certainly not unheard of.

Consider, for example, the story of Steven Thorpe. At age 17, he was in a tragic accident that killed one of the other occupants of the automobile. He was put in a medically-induced coma, and a team of four physicians told his parents that he was brain dead. They suggested that his organs be donated to help others. However, the parents brought in an additional doctor (a neurologist), who demonstrated faint brain activity. The doctors at the hospital agreed to bring him out of the medically-induced coma, and Thorpe recovered. He left the hospital five days later and at the time the article was published, he was alive and well.

Once again, while these stories seem rare, they are not unheard of. In 2008, Zack Dunlap was in an automobile accident and was declared dead 36 hours later. However, he wasn’t dead. In fact, he says that he actually heard his doctors saying that he was dead. The hospital made plans to harvest his organs, since his driver’s license said that he was an organ donor. However, as his family was saying goodbye, one of his cousins (a nurse) decided to pull out his pocket knife, hold Zack’s foot, and scrape the knife against it. Zack pulled his own foot out of his cousin’s hand. The family took it as a sign of life, and they argued that the hospital should treat Zack as if he were alive. He ended up making a full recovery.

The bottom line is that while we have amazing technology and a lot of knowledge about human anatomy and physiology, there are limits to what we can detect and what we can conclude. While it is sometimes very obvious that someone is dead, there are other times when even the experts can be fooled. That’s something all of us need to keep in mind when we deal with life and death issues.

A Cure For Cancer? Probably Not!

Cancer cells from human connective tissue (click for credit)

I started seeing it on my Facebook feed Tuesday. I started getting messages about it on Wednesday. It’s a news story of great interest to many people, and the headline says it all:

A CURE FOR CANCER? ISRAELI SCIENTISTS SAY THEY THINK THEY FOUND ONE

The news outlet that published the story is the Jerusalem Post. After it was published there on Monday, U.S. news outlets picked up the story. I suspect that nearly everyone in the U.S. knows someone who has been afflicted with some form of cancer, so the interest is understandable. The problem is that the story is almost certainly not true.

As far as I know, the Jerusalem Post is a credible news organization. Also, the people who have made the claim (Dan D. Aridor and Dr. Ilan Morad ) are credible people. Nevertheless, the claims are not credible, especially when you investigate them.

Aridor and Morad say that they are using “phage display” technologies to target proteins that are typically produced by cancer cells. This allows them to eliminate cancer cells without affecting healthy ones. This is already an active area of cancer treatment research, so the technique is a valid one. They claim that they have a special variation on the technique that will allow them to offer “a complete cure for cancer” within a year or so. If that sounds too good to be true, it probably is – especially when you see what the claim is based on.

Essentially, they say they have tested their technique on mice, and it works very well. Unfortunately, they have not published their results, so it is hard to know what that really means. They claim they don’t want to spend their time and money on writing up a publication. Instead, they want to concentrate on the research necessary to perfect the technique. That is understandable, and they might also be afraid that others could use their publication to “copy” their technique and beat them to the punch.

So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that they tested their technique on mice, and it was found to completely eliminate specific types of cancer in mice with no discernible side effects. That still doesn’t mean it will work in people! The gap between animal studies and human studies is huge, which is why many treatments that worked incredibly well in animals do very poorly when used to treat people. Now, of course, it makes sense to test a treatment on animals first, but to claim that a technique can go from early animal trials to human treatment in a year is naive, at best.

Also, to make a blanket statement that it will be “a complete cure for cancer” is silly, since there are so many different forms of cancer. It’s possible that their technique might be a great cure for some forms of cancer, but the idea that it will treat all (or even most) forms of cancer seems shockingly inconsistent with what we know about the nature of cancer itself.

Of course, no one will be happier than me if I am wrong. I have had skin cancer removed, and my wife recently had a cancerous breast tumor removed. Thus, a cure for cancer would clearly make me very happy. Nevertheless, I don’t think there will be one within a year, and even if there is one, I suspect that it will only be able to treat specific types of cancer.

LED Lights Might Pose A Hazard for Vision

Wavelengths coming from various light sources (image modified from the Tosini 2016 article linked below)
A very good friend showed me an article from the University of Toledo. It reports on a study that demonstrates how blue light might be damaging to the light-sensing cells found in your eye. I didn’t know anything about this, so I decided to look into the research that has been done on the effects of blue light on vision. I found this excellent review article, which discusses what has been figured out so far. The short answer is that we don’t know anything for certain, but there is some evidence that long-term, chronic exposure to significant amounts of blue light could be damaging to your eyes.

Several animal studies have shown that exposure to blue light can increase the animal’s risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and other eye problems. However, studies on people haven’t been clear. Some studies have shown a relationship between long-term exposure to the sun’s light and AMD, and it is assumed that the blue light given out by the sun is the culprit. However, a case-controlled study in Australia indicated that it might not be exposure to the sun’s light that is causing the relationship. It indicates that sensitivity to glare and difficulty developing a tan are the actual indicators of higher AMD risk, and studies that show a relationship between the sun’s light and AMD might not be controlling properly for those variables.

The study that was discussed in the University of Toledo article linked above didn’t assess the damage blue light causes to human eyes. Instead, the authors assessed the damage on human cells. However, they didn’t use actual light-sensing cells from a human eye, because that’s not possible. They used HeLa cells, which are a line of cells that came from cancerous tissue taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks more than 65 years ago. The cells continue to reproduce to this day, so this line of cells is often referred to as “immortal.” The story behind the acquisition of the cells is the topic of a very sad and interesting book as well as a pretty lousy movie.

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A New Feature in the Human Body Has Been Discovered!

Schematic of the newly-found human anatomical feature (Illustration by Jill Gregory licenced under CC-BY-ND – click for more information)

In one of my online biology classes last week, a student asked if I had any comments on the new organ that was just discovered in the human body. I didn’t have any comments, because I didn’t know anything about it. I expressed a lot of skepticism, saying that with all the imaging techniques available to scientists, it’s hard to imagine that an organ in the human body has been missed. However, I promised the student I would look into it, and while I hesitate to call it a new organ, it turns out that a new feature of the human body has most certainly been discovered!

You can read about it in the open-access article published by Scientific Reports. As shown in the illustration above, the researchers found that wherever tissues are stretched or compressed (like the lungs or even the intestines), there is a network of fluid-filled spaces underneath. In the illustration above, think of the part labeled “Mucosa” as the lining of an organ. Underneath that lining, there is a mesh of collagen proteins and elastin proteins (elastin is a part of the “collagen bundle” in the illustration). Those proteins have specific cells attached to them that react to CD34, a stain used to highlight a feature of certain cells when they are viewed under a microscope. In between this mesh of proteins and cells, the spaces are filled with fluid.

For a long time, anatomists have understood that there is a lot of fluid in between the cells of an organism. It is called “interstitial fluid,” and it makes up about 16% of the human body’s weight. It bathes the cells, keeping their environment reasonably constant and serving as way that cells can exchange chemicals with the rest of the body. It comes from the blood, and then it drains into the lymphatic system, where it is cleaned and returned to the blood. So the fluid found in those spaces is not new. The fact that the fluid is found in a mesh of proteins and cells and forms the sponge-like structure illustrated above was completely unknown up to this point.

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More Evidence that A Baby in the Womb is Fully Human

Two images from a 4d ultrasound (click for credit)
Two images from a 4d ultrasound (click for credit)

Dr. Jerome L. LeJeune was the brilliant geneticist who first demonstrated that there is a link between certain diseases and corresponding chromosomal abnormalities. While testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1989, he said:

To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a matter of metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.

Almost thirty years have passed since he made this statement, and the scientific evidence continues to support it.

Nearly seven years ago, I wrote about a study of twins in the womb. The study indicated that social interaction takes place prior to birth when the opportunity arises. Later on, I wrote about another study that indicates that if our understanding of brain networks is correct, babies actually think about the future while in the womb!

I recently learned about a new study that adds even more evidence to the ever-growing pile which indicates that babies are fully human while they are inside the womb.

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What Happens to the Mind When the Body Can’t Communicate?

A version of the brain/computer interface cap used in the study (click for credit)
A version of the brain/computer interface cap used in the study (click for credit)

More than five years ago, I sat by a hospital bed where my Aunt Kay lay dying. Unlike my father, she was completely uncommunicative on her deathbed. She never made any purposeful physical movements, and despite repeated requests, she never indicated that she was aware of what was going on around her. I remember sitting there wondering whether or not she was “in there.” Was she able to hear the words of love people were sharing with her, or was she, for all intents and purposes, already gone? While I am here on this earth, I will never have the answer to that question, but a recent scientific paper indicates that in at least some cases, completely uncommunicative people really are still “in there.”

In this case, the study was done on four patients with advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Their cases are so severe that they are described as being in a complete locked-in state. This means that they cannot make any voluntary movements at all. They can’t even move their eyes. As a result, they have no way of letting others know what they think or feel. One of the patients had been unable to reliably communicate with anyone for six years prior to the study. Two of them had been in a similar uncommunicative state for two years, and one of them for several months.

The researchers outfitted each of the patients with a cap similar to the one pictured above. It could communicate with a computer that recorded measurements related to the physical workings of their brains. The researchers then instructed the patients that they would be asked several yes/no questions over the course of the study. Some would have answers that could be verified. Some would be “open” questions for which only the patient knew the answer. The patients were asked to strongly think “yes” or “no” (actually, “ja” or “nein” since the study was done in Germany) in response to each question. They were specifically told not to “picture” their response. They were told to only think it.

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