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Is the omicron variant Mother Nature’s way of vaccinating the masses and curbing the pandemic?

Some of the omicron variant’s unique properties – such as its ability to spread rapidly while causing milder COVID-19 infections – could usher in a new phase of the pandemic.

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Preliminary research suggests that the omicron variant may potentially induce a robust immune response. Olga Siletskaya/Moment via Getty Images

In the short time since the omicron variant was identified in South Africa in November 2021, researchers have quickly learned that it has three unique characteristics: It spreads efficiently and quickly, it generally causes milder disease than previous variants and it may confer strong protection against other variants such as delta.

This has many people wondering whether omicron could act as a vaccine of sorts, inoculating enough people to effectively bring about herd immunity – the threshold at which enough of the population is immune to the virus to stop its spread – and end the COVID-19 pandemic.

As immunology researchers at the University of South Carolina who are working on inflammatory and infectious diseases, including COVID-19, we find the characteristics of omicron in the pandemic setting particularly intriguing. And it is these characteristics that can help answer that question.

Some 4.73 billion people across the globe – about 61.6% of the world’s population – have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In the United States, 63.4% of the population is fully vaccinated with two doses as of late January 2022, while only 39.9% of Americans have received the booster dose. Such low levels of vaccination resulting from vaccine hesitancy and the complexities of the global vaccine supply chain cast doubt on reaching herd immunity through vaccination anytime soon.

How does omicron mimic a vaccine?

All vaccines work on the principle of training the immune system to fight against an infectious agent. Each vaccine, regardless of how it is made, exposes the human or animal host to the critical molecules used by the infectious agent – in this case, the SARS-CoV-2 virus – to gain entry into the host’s cells.

Some vaccines expose the host only to select portions of the virus. For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use a molecule called messenger RNA, or mRNA, to encode and produce a fragment of the “spike protein” – the knobby protrusion that is expressed on the outside of SARS-CoV-2 viruses – inside a person’s body. These spike proteins are the key way that the coronavirus invades cells, so the mRNA vaccines are designed to mimic that protein and trigger an immune response against it.

In contrast, some vaccines against other infections, such as chickenpox and measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), expose the host to a “live attenuated” form of the virus. These vaccines use small amounts of a weakened form of the live virus. They mimic a natural infection, trigger a strong immune response and afford lasting resistance to infection.

In some respects, omicron mimics these live attenuated vaccines because it causes milder infection and trains the body to trigger a strong immune response against the delta variant, as shown in a recent study that is not yet peer-reviewed from South Africa.

Deliberate infection with omicron is not the answer

While omicron may share certain characteristics with a vaccine, it should not be considered a viable alternative to the existing vaccines. For one, COVID-19 infection can result in severe illness, hospitalization or death, especially in vulnerable individuals with underlying conditions. It can also cause long-term health effects in some people, called long COVID. In contrast, vaccines currently available against COVID-19 have been tested for safety and efficacy.

The high transmission of omicron combined with ongoing vaccination efforts could help attain herd immunity soon and end the most acute phase of the pandemic. However, there is little chance of it eradicating COVID-19, since all signs point to the likelihood that the virus will become endemic – meaning SARS-CoV-2 will be in circulation but will likely not be as disruptive to society.

Thus far, smallpox is the only infectious disease that has been eradicated globally, which shows how difficult it is to fully eliminate a disease. However, it is easier to control an infection effectively. One example is polio, which has been reduced or eliminated in most countries through vaccination.

What happens when the body meets a virus or vaccine

Both viral infections or the mimicking of a virus through vaccination activate a critical component of the immune system, called B cells, in the body. These cells produce antibodies that bind to the virus, preventing it from infecting cells. These antibodies act much like anti-ballistic missiles that shoot down an incoming virus missile. However, once a virus manages to get inside the body’s cells, antibodies are less effective.

A 3-D illustration of antibody proteins attacking a coronavirus pathogen cell.
Antibodies behave similarly to anti-ballistic missiles, shooting down their target – in this case, the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Christoph Burgstedt/iStock via Getty Images Plus

That’s where another key player in the immune system, called killer T cells, come in. These cells can recognize and destroy a cell as soon as it is infected, thereby preventing the virus from multiplying and spreading further. Think of this as an anti-ballistic missile that detects and destroys the factory where missiles are manufactured.

Immunologists believe that antibodies against COVID-19 prevent an individual from catching the infection, while the killer T cells are crucial in preventing severe disease. Despite its numerous mutations, omicron can trigger a strong killer T cell response. This may explain why the COVID-19 vaccines – by triggering the T cells – have provided strong enough immunity against omicron to, in most cases, prevent hospitalization and death.

But, critically, the first wave of antibodies and killer T cells produced during infection or vaccination last for only a few months. This is why recurrent infections of COVID-19 have occurred even in the vaccinated population, and it’s also why booster shots are needed. In contrast, some vaccines – like the one against smallpox – have been shown to trigger immunity that lasts for several years.

Memory immune response

So what exactly triggers strong and lasting immunity? The lifelong immunity seen in certain infections such as smallpox can be explained by a phenomenon called “immunological memory.”

After the B cells and killer T cells first encounter the virus, some of them get converted into what are called memory cells, which are known to live for several decades. As their name suggests, when memory cells “see” a virus again after initial exposure, they recognize it, divide rapidly and mount a robust antibody and killer T cell response, thereby preventing reinfection.

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For this reason, memory cells are critical for establishing strong, long-lasting immunity. This is evidenced from studies with smallpox in which people that were infected or vaccinated were found to have the antibody response even after 88 years! Why some infections or vaccines trigger long-lasting memory and others do not is under active investigation. Because COVID-19 is only two years old, we researchers don’t know yet how long the memory B and T cells last. Based on recurrent infections, it looks like longer-term immunity does not last very long, but that could also in part be due to the evolution of new variants.

All of these considerations leave room for hope that when new variants of SARS-CoV-2 inevitably arise, omicron will have left the population better equipped to fight them. So the COVID-19 vaccines combined with the omicron variant could feasibly move the world to a new stage in the pandemic – one where the virus doesn’t dominate our lives and where hospitalization and death are far less common.

Prakash Nagarkatti receives funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Mitzi Nagarkatti receives funding from the National Institutes of Health.

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Government

CDC Now Recommends COVID Testing For All Domestic Air Travel, Including The Vaccinated

CDC Now Recommends COVID Testing For All Domestic Air Travel, Including The Vaccinated

Authored by Jack Phillips via The Epoch Times,

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CDC Now Recommends COVID Testing For All Domestic Air Travel, Including The Vaccinated

Authored by Jack Phillips via The Epoch Times,

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that all domestic travelers undergo COVID-19 testing before and after they travel - regardless of vaccination status.

In an update on the agency’s website, anyone traveling within the United States may want to consider “getting tested as close to the time of departure as possible,” and no more than three days before a flight. It previously only recommended testing for people who have not received COVID-19 vaccines or up-to-date booster shots.

The CDC update is also recommending that people take a test before or after a trip if they went to crowded spaces “while not wearing a well-fitting mask or respirator.”

In April, a Florida federal judge struck down the CDC mandate that required people to wear masks inside airports or on airplanes. Justice Department officials have signaled they will challenge the rule, implemented after President Joe Biden took office in early 2021, in court.

A spokesperson for the agency told AFAR Magazine on May 19 that “COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing severe disease and death,” but added, “since vaccines are not 100 percent effective at preventing infection, some people who are up to date can still get COVID-19.”

“People who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines may feel well and not have symptoms but still can be infected and spread the virus to others,” the spokesperson said.

In January of this year, the CDC also implemented a change to its international travel rule, requiring plane passengers aged 2 and older to show a negative COVID-19 test from no more than a day before boarding a flight or proof of recovery from COVID-19 within the previous 90 days. Foreign nationals have to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination as well.

Neither the CDC nor the White House has given any public indication of when the mandatory testing rule for international travelers will be relaxed. Travel groups have pushed for that rule to be removed for months now.

In a letter to the White House, a group representing more than 250 organizations called for an end to the rule, saying it’s only caused “slow economic recovery of the business and international travel sectors.”

After the federal judge’s order was handed down last month, the CDC issued a new recommendation that people inside airports and airplanes wear masks, despite nearly all major airliners having scrapped enforcement.

And during a news briefing last week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who has been criticized for her agency’s messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic, said that people living in counties that the agency deems to have high COVID-19 transmission should wear masks in indoor settings.

Tyler Durden Mon, 05/23/2022 - 17:40

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Spread & Containment

How many bots are on Twitter? The question is difficult to answer and misses the point

Elon Musk’s focus on the number of bots on Twitter, whether genuine or a distraction, does little to address the problems of misinformation and spam….

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Yes, worry about Twitter, but don't worry whether there are hordes of spambots running rampant there. gremlin/E+ via Getty Images

Twitter reports that fewer than 5% of accounts are fakes or spammers, commonly referred to as “bots.” Since his offer to buy Twitter was accepted, Elon Musk has repeatedly questioned these estimates, even dismissing Chief Executive Officer Parag Agrawal’s public response.

Later, Musk put the deal on hold and demanded more proof.

So why are people arguing about the percentage of bot accounts on Twitter?

As the creators of Botometer, a widely used bot detection tool, our group at the Indiana University Observatory on Social Media has been studying inauthentic accounts and manipulation on social media for over a decade. We brought the concept of the “social bot” to the foreground and first estimated their prevalence on Twitter in 2017.

Based on our knowledge and experience, we believe that estimating the percentage of bots on Twitter has become a very difficult task, and debating the accuracy of the estimate might be missing the point. Here is why.

What, exactly, is a bot?

To measure the prevalence of problematic accounts on Twitter, a clear definition of the targets is necessary. Common terms such as “fake accounts,” “spam accounts” and “bots” are used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Fake or false accounts are those that impersonate people. Accounts that mass-produce unsolicited promotional content are defined as spammers. Bots, on the other hand, are accounts controlled in part by software; they may post content or carry out simple interactions, like retweeting, automatically.

These types of accounts often overlap. For instance, you can create a bot that impersonates a human to post spam automatically. Such an account is simultaneously a bot, a spammer and a fake. But not every fake account is a bot or a spammer, and vice versa. Coming up with an estimate without a clear definition only yields misleading results.

Defining and distinguishing account types can also inform proper interventions. Fake and spam accounts degrade the online environment and violate platform policy. Malicious bots are used to spread misinformation, inflate popularity, exacerbate conflict through negative and inflammatory content, manipulate opinions, influence elections, conduct financial fraud and disrupt communication. However, some bots can be harmless or even useful, for example by helping disseminate news, delivering disaster alerts and conducting research.

Simply banning all bots is not in the best interest of social media users.

For simplicity, researchers use the term “inauthentic accounts” to refer to the collection of fake accounts, spammers and malicious bots. This is also the definition Twitter appears to be using. However, it is unclear what Musk has in mind.

Hard to count

Even when a consensus is reached on a definition, there are still technical challenges to estimating prevalence.

a network graph showing a circle composed of groups of colored dots with lines connecting some of the dots
Networks of coordinated accounts spreading COVID-19 information from low-credibility sources on Twitter in 2020. Pik-Mai Hui

External researchers do not have access to the same data as Twitter, such as IP addresses and phone numbers. This hinders the public’s ability to identify inauthentic accounts. But even Twitter acknowledges that the actual number of inauthentic accounts could be higher than it has estimated, because detection is challenging.

Inauthentic accounts evolve and develop new tactics to evade detection. For example, some fake accounts use AI-generated faces as their profiles. These faces can be indistinguishable from real ones, even to humans. Identifying such accounts is hard and requires new technologies.

Another difficulty is posed by coordinated accounts that appear to be normal individually but act so similarly to each other that they are almost certainly controlled by a single entity. Yet they are like needles in the haystack of hundreds of millions of daily tweets.

Finally, inauthentic accounts can evade detection by techniques like swapping handles or automatically posting and deleting large volumes of content.

The distinction between inauthentic and genuine accounts gets more and more blurry. Accounts can be hacked, bought or rented, and some users “donate” their credentials to organizations who post on their behalf. As a result, so-called “cyborg” accounts are controlled by both algorithms and humans. Similarly, spammers sometimes post legitimate content to obscure their activity.

We have observed a broad spectrum of behaviors mixing the characteristics of bots and people. Estimating the prevalence of inauthentic accounts requires applying a simplistic binary classification: authentic or inauthentic account. No matter where the line is drawn, mistakes are inevitable.

Missing the big picture

The focus of the recent debate on estimating the number of Twitter bots oversimplifies the issue and misses the point of quantifying the harm of online abuse and manipulation by inauthentic accounts.

screenshot of a web form
Screenshot of the BotAmp application comparing likely bot activity around two topics on Twitter. Kaicheng Yang

Through BotAmp, a new tool from the Botometer family that anyone with a Twitter account can use, we have found that the presence of automated activity is not evenly distributed. For instance, the discussion about cryptocurrencies tends to show more bot activity than the discussion about cats. Therefore, whether the overall prevalence is 5% or 20% makes little difference to individual users; their experiences with these accounts depend on whom they follow and the topics they care about.

Recent evidence suggests that inauthentic accounts might not be the only culprits responsible for the spread of misinformation, hate speech, polarization and radicalization. These issues typically involve many human users. For instance, our analysis shows that misinformation about COVID-19 was disseminated overtly on both Twitter and Facebook by verified, high-profile accounts.

Even if it were possible to precisely estimate the prevalence of inauthentic accounts, this would do little to solve these problems. A meaningful first step would be to acknowledge the complex nature of these issues. This will help social media platforms and policymakers develop meaningful responses.

Filippo Menczer receives funding from Knight Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Open Technology Fund, and DoD. He owns a Tesla.

Kai-Cheng Yang does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Spread & Containment

Monkeypox Outbreak Primarily Spreading Via Sexual Contact: WHO Officials

Monkeypox Outbreak Primarily Spreading Via Sexual Contact: WHO Officials

Authored by Jack Phillips via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

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Monkeypox Outbreak Primarily Spreading Via Sexual Contact: WHO Officials

Authored by Jack Phillips via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

The recent outbreak of the monkeypox virus in North America and Europe is primarily spreading through sex, according to World Health Organization (WHO) officials on Monday, while confirming about 200 cases so far.

The virus itself is not a sexually transmitted infection, but WHO officials said the recent surge in cases is linked to homosexual men. However, they said that anyone can contract monkeypox, which is generally confined to Central and West Africa.

“We’ve seen a few cases in Europe over the last five years, just in travelers, but this is the first time we’re seeing cases across many countries at the same time in people who have not traveled to the endemic regions in Africa,” Dr. Rosamund Lewis, who runs WHO’s smallpox research, said in a streaming event on social media.

So far, the United States has confirmed at least two cases and a third suspected case is being investigated by officials in Florida. The cases have been reported in New York City and Massachusetts.

Many diseases can be spread through sexual contact. You could get a cough or a cold through sexual contact, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a sexually transmitted disease,” Andy Seale, who advises WHO on HIV, hepatitis, and other sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs. Seale said monkeypox isn’t considered an STD.

Meanwhile, Dr. David Heymann, who chaired a meeting of the World Health Organization’s advisory group on infectious disease, told The Associated Press that the leading theory to explain the spread of the disease was sexual transmission at events held in Spain and Belgium. Monkeypox has not previously triggered widespread outbreaks beyond Africa, where it is endemic in animals.

We know monkeypox can spread when there is close contact with the lesions of someone who is infected, and it looks like sexual contact has now amplified that transmission,” said Heymann.

“It’s very possible there was somebody who got infected, developed lesions … and then spread it to others when there was sexual or close, physical contact,” Heymann said, adding that “these international events … seeded the outbreak around the world, into the U.S., and other European countries.

*  *  *

[ZH: as Michael Snyder notes, however]

Of course sexual activity is not the only way that monkeypox can be spread.

Officials at the WHO need to make that very clear.

But so far authorities have identified two “superspreader events” which seem to have been catalysts for this global outbreak. 

One was a pride festival in the Canary Islands

The Canaria Pride festival, held in the town of Maspalomas between May 5 and 15, has become a hotspot for the monkeypox outbreak, reports El País.

The massive party was attended by over 80,000 people, including three Italian men who later tested positive for the virus.

A health source told the newspaper: “Among the 30 or so diagnosed in Madrid, there are several who attended the event, although it is not yet possible to know if one of them is patient zero of this outbreak or if they all got infected there.”

And the other was a fetish festival in Antwerp, Belgium

Many of the patients who have come forward so far are gay men and Belgium’s three confirmed cases of monkeypox have been linked to a large-scale fetish festival in the port city of Antwerp. Kuipers said in his briefing that while a notable number of men who have sex with men are among the patients the virus is ‘not confined to them’. The virus can be spread via mucus membranes in the mouth, nose and eyes or via open wounds.

As we move into the summer months, the WHO is warning that similar events could cause the outbreak to accelerate even more

Now the World Health Organization is warning that summer festivals and mass gatherings could accelerate the spread of monkeypox.

“As we enter the summer season in the European region, with mass gatherings, festivals and parties, I am concerned that transmission could accelerate, as the cases currently being detected are among those engaging in sexual activity, and the symptoms are unfamiliar to many,” said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe.

But even if health authorities do a great job of explaining the dangers, will people avoid engaging in high risk activities?

Of course not.

Another very interesting thing that has come to light is the fact that an international biosecurity conference that was held in Munich in March 2021 actually simulated the type of scenario that we are facing now

Elite media outlets around the world are on red alert over the world’s first-ever global outbreak of Monkeypox in mid-May 2022—just one year after an international biosecurity conference in Munich held a simulation of a “global pandemic involving an unusual strain of Monkeypox” beginning in mid-May 2022.

*  *  *

Last week, officials in Belgium said they would implement a mandatory, 21-day quarantine for individuals who contracted monkeypox. Germany has four confirmed cases linked to exposure at “party events … where sexual activity took place” in Spain’s Canary Islands and in Berlin, according to a government report to lawmakers obtained by the AP.

This is not COVID,” Heymann told AP. “We need to slow it down, but it does not spread in the air and we have vaccines to protect against it.

Heymann said studies should be conducted rapidly to determine if monkeypox could be spread by people without symptoms and that populations at risk of the disease should take precautions to protect themselves.

Symptoms include fever, body aches, and rashes. Though related to the smallpox virus, symptoms are typically less severe for monkeypox. The latter is notably distinguished from smallpox by the appearance of swollen lymph nodes during the symptomatic phase of the virus, immediately preceding a swollen rash that spreads to the inside of the mouth and the hands and feet.

Tyler Durden Mon, 05/23/2022 - 16:20

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