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SARS-CoV-2 Shows Tremendous Capacity to Adapt and Change

When I wrote about SARS-CoV-2 variants in the March edition of my column, no one could say with certainty how new variants of SARS-CoV-2 would change the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. But many public health officials and experts, myself included, feare

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Bill Haseltine, Ph.D.

When I wrote about SARS-CoV-2 variants in the March edition of my column, no one could say with certainty how new variants of SARS-CoV-2 would change the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. But many public health officials and experts, myself included, feared they would cause serious problems. In the months since, this prediction has become our reality, casting a long shadow over our collective attempts to control the pandemic and prevent further death and disease. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has gone on record to say that a vaccine-proof variant might be “only a few mutations away.”

Initially, variants from different geographical regions exhibited similar mutations, fueling speculation that the virus had only a limited number of changes within reach. Over time, the hope was, SARS-CoV-2 would assume an evolutionary trajectory similar to that of cold-causing coronaviruses, becoming no more harmful than another common cold. Though not far-fetched, this scenario was dubious for several reasons. One, this did not prove to be the case for a virus very similar to SARS-CoV-2, influenza, which requires new batches of flu shots each year to account for its rate of variation. Two, the behavior and virological profile of SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably different from that of its more benign cousins.

What we didn’t know then—though a mounting pile of evidence has since confirmed—is that SARS-CoV-2 does, in fact, have a tremendous capacity for adaptation and change. We’re also beginning to understand why.

First and foremost we must consider the ecological nature of this virus. Every species has its niche—the place it occupies in a broader ecosystem. Viruses are no exception. Some viruses, like respiratory syncytial virus, affect mostly newborns and children. Others, like HIV, hepatitis B, and syphilis, are sexually transmitted and circulate among humans by way of our intimacies.

SARS-CoV-2 falls into a third category: influenza and cold-causing viruses. Their ecological niche is much broader, consisting of long-lived, immunocompetent, gregarious adults who have been previously infected by the selfsame virus. Viruses that occupy this niche develop the capacity to reinfect their human hosts over and over again, no matter the immune defenses we develop in response. Viruses possess nothing remotely like human intelligence, but they do have time on their side—a rapid mutational variation akin to artificial intelligence. Each generates countess mutations. The variants that allow them to continue to spread through a population come to dominate.

Remarkably, we were able to develop vaccines that protected against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 in less than a year. But studies conducted in the wake of the emergence of the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and particularly Delta variants show that the strength and durability of that protection might not hold if the virus continues to become more virulent and, in the worst-case scenario, more lethal.

What follows is an overview of what we’ve learned over the course of several months of studying the variants.

Lesson 1. We don’t know how much the virus will evolve, but it is possible we’re only in the beginning stages.

Avidity

To initiate and sustain infection, SARS-CoV-2 binds to the ACE2 receptors that are expressed in abundance across our airways and nasal passages. The tighter the virus binds to the cells of the nasal mucosa, the fewer the number of particles required to infect—a definite selective advantage.

Just how avid could the virus become? According to a recent study the limit is far beyond what new variants have exhibited thus far. Scientists were able to increase its binding capabilities 600-fold. The avidity of SARS-CoV-2 variants currently in circulation is likely lower by several orders of magnitude.

Some changes in avidity seem to balance other changes in immune evasion that may render the mutant less fit. Further study of such interactions is needed to see whether they could play a role in vaccine and drug development.

Sites of mutation and potential drug targets

The primary target of the neutralizing antibodies in COVID-19 vaccines and monoclonal antibodies in certain drugs is the spike protein, which contains the receptor binding domain that affixes to ACE2. Several of the mutations identified across the new variants are located on the spike.

One region of the spike protein can be thought of as the primary antigen of the primary neutralizing enemy—a waving flag that lures antibodies its way. Remarkably, this part of the spike, called the receptor binding domain, can mutate to decrease immune recognition and still bind to the ACE2 receptor to permit virus entry. Sometimes, when the receptor binding domain changes to avoid immune detection, the mutations it incurs may actually decrease infectivity. We’re now learning that changes occurring outside the receptor binding domain can regain these losses through adjoining mechanisms. Called compensatory mutations, these changes ensure the virus can still evade immunization while simultaneously becoming more infectious.

Examining the full extent of variation across the viral genome, we see that across the vast spectrum of cold-causing coronaviruses, the protein sequence of the entire spike diverges only two to four percent every eight years, while divergence in the receptor binding domain, at its peak, reached 17 percent. The conclusion is, once again, that SARS-CoV-2 may be nowhere near the limits of its own variation. The latest round of variants including Mu, Lambda and C.1.2 show that twenty months into the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 is still developing new variants that may challenge our best vaccines.

Lesson 2. The virus selects for changes that increase its ability to jump from one person to another.

Stability of the virus particle

The survivability of SARS-CoV-2 is directly dependent upon its transmission from host to host. Mutations could enhance this ability by increasing the stability of the virus particle and how long it can maintain structural integrity outside the host environment. Some the new variants include mutations in the structural proteins E, M and N. These should be investigated not only for their effect on virus replication but also for the possibility that they confer increased stability to the free virus particle, a property which could provide a selective advantage.

Immune suppression

SARS-CoV-2 is a master at evading both the defenses of an infected cell and the entire immune system. It is a tale of stealth and disguise worthy of any great mystery novel. The primary story, perhaps paradoxically, is one of immune suppression, not hyper-activation, which is seen so strikingly in those who fall seriously ill. To establish infection all viruses must first defeat the body’s well-honed defenses. Early on, the virus acts at multiple levels to counteract innate immunity, the first line of defense against microbial invaders, allowing enough time for the virus to enter and exit before the full set of antiviral defenses can mobilize.

The original SARS-CoV-2 virus encoded many proteins in its genome that modify and suppress the immune system. New variants appear to improve upon these existing capabilities, allowing the virus to replicate to high concentrations without drawing the attention and ire of cellular immune sensors. They take particular aim at interferon and the genes and proteins induced by interferon.

Beyond the structural proteins I already touched on—the spike, membrane, envelope, and nucleocapsid—SARS-CoV-2 has nonstructural proteins (NSPs) and accessory genes, including open reading frames (Orfs), that contribute collectively to this effort. Like Swiss army knives, the viral proteins of SARS-CoV-2 are multifunctional, with many performing several highly specific tasks. NSP3 alone encodes seven distinct functional domains, including protease cleavage, de-ubiquitination, de-ADP-ribosylation, and autophagy modulation.

All the virus’ mechanisms of immune suppression ultimately come in one of two forms: nonspecific and specific.

Nonspecific immune suppression

Nonspecific suppression, such as the obstruction of protein synthesis and export, indiscriminately affects entire cellular processes, even the machinery that potentiates viral propagation. This blunt apparatus of suppression forms an intensive blockade against immune signaling pathways, activated in coordination with counterbalancing elements that allow SARS-CoV-2 to continue replicating even as general cellular functioning is disrupted.

Figure 1: Mechanisms of nonspecific immune suppression.
Figure 1: Mechanisms of nonspecific immune suppression. Studies show that SARS-CoV-2 interferes with cellular messenger RNA nuclear export (via NSP1); signal peptide membrane transport (via NSP8 and NSP9); phosphorylation and other post-translational modifications of regulatory proteins (via NSP3, NSP13, and 3 prime Orfs); surface expression and regulation of MHC-I (via Orf8); and cellular RNA splicing (via NSP16).
Source: ACCESS Health International

Specific immune suppression

Specific suppression is more precise as a mode of attack, zeroing in on microscopic structures, interactions, and processes with equally specific effects. Many of the Orfs, as far as we know, only interact with select innate immune signals, like interferon and interferon-responsive genes, while NSP1, in addition to its nonspecific functions, also specifically inhibits RIG-I, a pattern recognition receptor critical to the activation of the innate immune response.

Whether specific or nonspecific, any one of these mechanisms can, with the right mutations in place, increase in effectivity, which in turn will allow the virus to replicate more prolifically and reach higher titers. We now have evidence that this is what happened with the Alpha variant. Studies that used deep sequencing techniques to investigate differences in protein transcription and expression between the original and Alpha strains found an 80-fold increase in the amount of Orf9b subgenomic RNA produced by the Alpha variant and a ten-fold increase in the messenger RNA corresponding to the Orf6 proteins. Both Orf9b and Orf6 are inhibitors of innate immunity.

While we don’t yet understand the evolutionary trajectory of the Delta variant in depth, there is reason to suspect that its immunosuppressive capabilities are heightened compared to previous, less infectious variants. Even single point mutations in various genes are enough to substantiate change, the consequences of which have affected the development of influenza vaccines and hepatitis C drugs.

Lesson 3. We need to reevaluate our timeline and approach to pandemic control in light of what we know about new SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Taking these new findings into consideration, what is the bottom line for the future of pandemic control?

A report recently released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), an independent body of experts that advises the UK government in times of crisis, outlined four potential scenarios that can help frame our expectations for the future, as well as corresponding action items. They are as follows:

Scenario One: A variant that causes severe disease in a greater proportion of the population than has occurred to date. For example, with similar morbidity/mortality to other zoonotic coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV (~10% case fatality) or MERS-CoV (~35% case fatality).

Scenario Two: A variant that evades current vaccines.

Scenario Three: Emergence of a drug resistant variant after antiviral strategies.

Scenario Four: SARS-CoV-2 follows an evolutionary trajectory with decreased virulence.

To gain a deeper understanding of the paths laid out before us, we must first examine how a variant emerges and becomes dominant in a given population. The evolutionary potential of a virus is comparable to the computational power of machine intelligence. It doesn’t evolve by choice or design, but by generating random combinations of mutations until one rises above the rest as superior. Viruses aren’t the sole catalysts of this process, however. Ultimately the behavior of humans, as the SAGE report points out, is what changes the behavior of a virus like SARS-CoV-2. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve abandoned our previous way of life and gone to great lengths to protect ourselves from harm. Only variants that overcome the myriad obstacles we put in their way—including masks, vaccines, drugs, and basic prevention measures like social distancing—stand a chance of surviving.

Three specific enhancements, none mutually exclusive and all already documented, can improve the survival prospects of current and future SARS-CoV-2 variants. I described them independently of one another in the sections above but will summarize the sum total of their effects here.

The first is an increase in the speed and volume of replication activity. If higher concentrations of virus are produced in and released through our nasal passages, it makes logical sense they might reach a larger number of hosts.

The second is an increase in stability. The more stable the virus particle, the longer it can retain structural integrity and remain infectious.

Last but not least is an increase in avidity. The latest crop of variants has mutated from the original strain to stick tighter and longer to the surfaces of our cells—a trend that has potential to continue if, as in lab experiments, the avidity of the virus has an upper limit 600-fold greater than that of the original strain.

Scenario Five: Increased immune suppression

There is a possibility that the Delta variant represents the worst SARS-CoV-2 has to offer. But according to the SAGE report, this version of events—in which virulence decreases from here on out—remains unlikely, at least in the short term. That we’re only at the beginning of the variant taxonomical alphabet goes to show how much variation might occur before the tail end of this trajectory is in sight. Adding to the uncertainty is the epidemiological data we have on brutal COVID-19 surges that overwhelmed cities in India and Brazil. Despite the fact that their populations already had extensive exposure to the virus previously—in the case of Manaus, Brazil, enough to push past the theoretical threshold of herd immunity—they still suffered from high rates of hospitalization and death. Given that the Gamma variant originated in Brazil and the Delta variant in India, it is only fair to speculate that conditions in both places were ripe for the emergence of a variant that existing antibodies couldn’t neutralize.

There will likely be more variants to watch out for in the coming months. Currently on our radar are the Lambda variant, MU, prevalent in South America, and C.1.2 from South Africa. Sewer sleuths report the discovery of multiple novel, yet functional mutations in genomes exacted from treatment plants. Some of these variants encode changes that elude neutralization by sera of both those vaccinated or naturally infected as well as from approved monoclonal antibody treatments.

The current generation of COVID-19 vaccines is certainly preventing a reiteration of these catastrophic events in countries that have access to them, but their initial rollout has only gone so far. Even in a country like the US, where half the nation is fully vaccinated and 64 percent have received at least one dose, there are enough cracks in our collective defenses for SARS-CoV-2 to experiment with new recipes for increased infectivity and, by a stroke of our bad luck, crack the code for increased virulence, too. The SAGE report scenario in which SARS-CoV-2 evolves to become deadlier, killing one in 10 like SARS-CoV or even one in three like MERS-CoV, cites point mutations and recombination events as possible catalysts for this transformation. Such phenomena can come down to a shift as small as a single amino acid. Unless we act now to patch up the holes it might emerge from, who’s to say it won’t happen tomorrow?

In addition to the four SAGE scenarios, I would like to propose a fifth. Since the primary means by which SARS-CoV-2 entrenches itself among humans appears to be immune evasion and suppression, I could anticipate a turn of events in which SARS-CoV-2 becomes not just more adept at evading vaccines and drugs, but the immune system writ large. In this scenario, the period of asymptomatic transmission and duration of infectivity would be longer; the amount of virus produced, higher; and our defenses against the virus, fundamentally indisposed to neutralize it. This includes, of course, vaccines.

Effects on vaccines

Four components predict the effectiveness of vaccine protection. The first is how well the vaccine works against the original strain. Second, how long protection lasts. Third, how well it protects against variants. And fourth, individual variation determined by age, preexisting conditions, and so on. Of these four variables, the one we can control least is the duration of protection. But if what we’ve learned since January is any indication, it might also be our greatest cause for concern. However capable we may be of designing new vaccines that combat viral variation, there is only so much they can do if they can’t withstand the test of time.

We now know two things about the duration of vaccine-mediated immune protection that before, we could only suspect. First, the antibody concentrations elicited by vaccines wane over time; and second, SARS-CoV-2 has become increasingly adept at evading them. We can’t predict with precision how thorough their capacity for immune evasion may become, but if the virus goes the way of influenza and cold viruses, it could be disastrous—for the elderly and other clinically vulnerable populations especially. Already studies show that for individuals over the age of 60, the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine against the Delta variant—the best we have, along with Moderna’s—drops to 16 percent after just 10 weeks. Vaccines that fail to protect high-risk groups simply won’t cut it. As long as one population is susceptible to disease and death, we all are.

Recent data shows a third dose of existing vaccines, or adding one or more doses to vaccines approved as a single dose, will provide additional protection as the titer of neutralizing antibodies against both the original virus and the variants tested exceeds that of the original vaccination. Unknown is how long the additional protection will last and how effective it will be against new and emerging variants.

To combat a virus so proficient at adaptation, we need to bulk up and shore up our containment methods accordingly. Only one viable option exists for long-term disease control: a strategy that combines longer-lasting and broadly protective vaccines with antiviral drugs, rigorous public health measures, and sustained cooperation between governments, scientists, drugmakers, and health agencies. I call the sum total of these many layers of defense multimodal therapy. It requires no shortage of effort, funds, and coordination, but such lengths constitute the bare minimum of what it takes to beat SARS-CoV-2 at its own evolutionary game.

Mechanisms of nonspecific immune suppression
Figure 2: NSP1 inhibiting RIG-I. SARS-CoV-2 and its effect on interferon. RIG-1 (retinoic acid-inducible gene 1) is inhibited by NSP1; MAVS (mitochon-drial antiviral signaling protein); IKKε (inhibitor of nuclear factor kappa-B kinase subunit epsilon) is inhibited by NSP13; TBK1 (TANK binding kinase 1) is inhibited by NSP13; IRF3 (interferon regulatory factor 3) is inhibited by NSP6 and Orf6; IFN-α/β (interferon alpha/beta); STAT1 and 2 (signal transducer and activator of transcription 1/2) are inhibited by NSP1, 6, 13, Orf3a, Orf6, Orf7b, and M; IRF9 (interferon regulatory factor 9); ISRE (interferon-stimulated response element); ISG (interferon-stimulated gene). Source: ACCESS Health International

Multimodal therapy

Four layers of defense in total make up multimodal therapy. The first layer consists of COVID-19 vaccines—not just the ones we presently have on hand, but second and third generations and booster shots that protect against the variants and possibly even coronaviruses more broadly.

Antiviral drugs and prophylactics—drugs that prevent infection rather than treat it—form the second layer. Current COVID-19 treatments are experimental, high-cost, and limited in use to intravenous administration in clinical settings. Developing orally ingestible drugs that come in pill form would be of tremendous help in long-term care centers, schools, businesses, and other hermetic environments where infection spreads and must be contained quickly.

The third ring of defense comes from public health measures that curb spread on the national and population level, including widespread testing, exhaustive contact tracing, mandatory isolation, tight border controls, and quarantines for new arrivals. Such policies have had demonstrable success in countries like Australia, China, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan. While not every nation currently has the infrastructure necessary for comprehensive testing, tracing, and quarantine programs, they should all work to build them.

But the first three layers of protection are only as good as the fourth and outermost ring: international cooperation. The international community needs to band together and invest in global disease surveillance, sequencing, and data-sharing. With this collective hub of information, scientists, researchers, and pharmaceutical researchers the world over must also combine expertise to determine how vaccines and treatments must be modulated in the face of new variants. Such an infrastructure would increase pandemic preparedness for decades to come.

For nearly two years COVID-19 has lived among us, and the new variants promise it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If we take what we’ve learned and use it to develop and implement long-lasting countermeasures against this virus and all to come, we will emerge from the current pandemic weary and battle-scarred, but stronger, wiser, and more resilient than before. The virus will only continue to adapt. The question becomes whether we can, too.

The post SARS-CoV-2 Shows Tremendous Capacity to Adapt and Change appeared first on Clinical OMICs - Molecular Diagnostics in Precision Medicine.

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Report: Pfizer, NIH Discussing Study of Longer Paxlovid Dosing Regimen

With increasing concerns about COVID-19 reinfection, Pfizer and the National Institutes of Health are discussing potential studies regarding a longer treatment…

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Report: Pfizer, NIH Discussing Study of Longer Paxlovid Dosing Regimen

With increasing concerns about COVID-19 reinfection, Pfizer and the National Institutes of Health are discussing potential studies regarding a longer treatment period with the antiviral medication, Paxlovid.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and scientific adviser to the White House, said the plan for the new studies could come over the next few days, Reuters reported this afternoon. During a White House briefing on COVID-19, Fauci pointed out that the rising cases of COVID-19 driven by an Omicron sub-variant are increasing the use of Pfizer’s Paxlovid. So far, more than 660,000 courses of Paxlovid have been administered across the U.S., Reuters said.

However, there is a growing concern that some patients are not shaking the virus as quickly as expected following a treatment regimen of the antiviral. Some continue to experience symptoms, or see a recurrence of their COVID-19 symptoms, following treatment with Paxlovid, Reuters said. Currently, there is no clear indication on the number of patients who are experiencing such a recurrence, or whether or not it is due to the variant type of COVID-19. But, the numbers appear to be enough to warrant such a conversation between America’s top infectious disease expert and Pfizer.

Paxlovid was granted Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December. It was granted EUA for the treatment of high-risk adults and pediatric patients 12 years and older who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and are at serious risk of hospitalization. A combination of nirmatrelvir and ritonavir tablets, during clinical trials, Paxlovid significantly reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% compared to placebo in non-hospitalized, high-risk adults with COVID-19 within three days of symptom-onset. However, even then, there were cases of a recurrence of symptoms in some clinical trial patients.

Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla has suggested that those patients who experience a recurrence of symptoms should undergo a second round of treatment with Paxlovid. As BioSpace previously reported, Bourla said if symptoms reoccur, “then you give a second course, like you do with antibiotics, and that’s it.”

However, the FDA has balked at that suggestion. Dr. John Farley, director of the FDA’s Office of Infectious Diseases, argued that there is no evidence of benefit for a longer course of treatment, such as 10 days instead of the current five days of administration, or a second five-day round of treatment.

Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock

While Pfizer may undertake these additional studies, as BioSpace reported earlier Wednesday, the pharma giant has so far reportedly resisted requests to use Paxlovid in combination studies. The nonprofit Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative said that Pfizer rejected a January request to offer doses of Paxlovid to be used in a study alongside an inhaled steroid in Africa.

Also Wednesday, Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly said studies have confirmed that bebtelovimab, the company’s monoclonal antibody against COVID-19, is effective against all variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including BA.2, which is currently the dominant strain in the U.S., Seeking Alpha reported.

 

BioSpace source:

https://www.biospace.com/article/pfizer-nih-in-talks-to-begin-study-of-longer-paxlovid-dosing-regimen

 

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Missouri Bill Prevents Doctors Being Disciplined If They Prescribe Ivermectin Or Hydroxychloroquine

Missouri Bill Prevents Doctors Being Disciplined If They Prescribe Ivermectin Or Hydroxychloroquine

Authored by Naveen Athrappully via The…

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Missouri Bill Prevents Doctors Being Disciplined If They Prescribe Ivermectin Or Hydroxychloroquine

Authored by Naveen Athrappully via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

Missouri lawmakers passed legislation that prevents state licensing boards from disciplining doctors who prescribe ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signs a bill in Jefferson City, Mo., on May 24, 2019. (Summer Balentine/AP Photo)

Sponsored by Rep. Brenda Kay Shields (R-Mo.), HB 2149 also bars pharmacists from questioning doctors or disputing patients regarding the usage of such drugs and their efficacy.

With a convincing 130–4 vote in the House, HB 2149 passed both chambers on May 12 and currently heads to the office of Gov. Mike Parson to be potentially signed into law.

The board shall not deny, revoke, or suspend, or otherwise take any disciplinary action against, a certificate of registration or authority, permit, or license required by this chapter for any person due to the lawful dispensing, distributing, or selling of ivermectin tablets or hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets for human use in accordance with prescriber directions,” reads the draft of the bill (pdf).

It adds, “A pharmacist shall not contact the prescribing physician or the patient to dispute the efficacy of ivermectin tablets or hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets for human use unless the physician or patient inquires of the pharmacist about the efficacy of ivermectin tablets or hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets.”

Critics of the bill have noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not given approval for usage of the drugs. Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine have been divisive drugs and politically polarized throughout the pandemic.

“But, nevertheless, the Missouri legislature has chosen to ‘own the libs’ by issuing a gag order against every pharmacist in this state from offering their medical opinion on taking either one of those medications—even if it could kill their patient,” wrote former Democratic nominee Lindsey Simmons in a May 12 Twitter post.

Although 22 countries across the world have approved the use of ivermectin in treating COVID-19, the FDA maintains that the current data show the drug to be ineffective. Large doses can be dangerous, it says.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases analyzed a national federated database of adults that compared ivermectin with the FDA-approved COVID-19 medication, remdesivir.

After using propensity score matching and adjusting for potential confounders, ivermectin was associated with reduced mortality vs remdesivir,” researchers wrote. “To our knowledge, this is the largest association study of patients with COVID-19, mortality, and ivermectin.”

According to The Associated Press, Missouri state Rep. Patty Lewis, a Democrat, agreed to the bill to satisfy a group of conservatives in the Senate. She added that the bill will not change anything significantly as medical boards do not engage in punishing doctors who prescribe drugs legally.

Tyler Durden Wed, 05/18/2022 - 23:25

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“They Shut Us Down”: Michigan Businesses Sue Whitmer For Losses Due To COVID Lockdowns

"They Shut Us Down": Michigan Businesses Sue Whitmer For Losses Due To COVID Lockdowns

Authored by Steven Kovac via The Epoch Times (emphasis…

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"They Shut Us Down": Michigan Businesses Sue Whitmer For Losses Due To COVID Lockdowns

Authored by Steven Kovac via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

A coalition of five bowling alleys and family entertainment centers is suing Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, for losses incurred due to her mandatory COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer listens to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in Clawson, Mich., on March 18, 2019. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon is also a defendant in the case.

The plaintiffs allege that the shutdowns imposed by Whitmer and Gordon were a “taking” of their businesses without just compensation in violation of both the state and the U.S. Constitution.

The case has been winding its way through the federal courts since January 2021.

Fred Kautz runs the lane oiler at Kautz Shore Lanes in Lexington, Mich., on May 13, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

The coalition lost the first round of the legal battle when the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan ruled against it.

Oral arguments were recently held before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit.

Plaintiff’s chief counsel David Kallman told The Epoch Times after the appeals court hearing, “The oral arguments from both sides were vigorous. The judges asked a lot of questions. It was the kind of proceeding that makes you proud to be a lawyer.

“Even the defense acknowledges that we are presenting ‘novel’ arguments.

“Michigan is the only state in the nation where a governor’s public health emergency powers were overturned as unconstitutional.

“If we lose in the court of appeals, we will take this case to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Scott Bennett, executive director of the Independent Bowling and Entertainment Centers Association, told The Epoch Times,

“The governor’s actions were devastating to our industry.

“Things went from ‘two weeks to slow the spread’ to indefinite shutdowns.”

Bennett said that the forced closures were not based on solid scientific proof that bowling alleys and family entertainment centers would spread the virus any more than the Walmart stores or the GM plants that were allowed to remain open.

“They were allowed to operate with hundreds and even thousands of people in them but we had to shut down. We feel our industry was unfairly singled-out.

“We cannot stand for a repeat of such arbitrary treatment and don’t want the people of Michigan to forget what was done to them.”

With the recent uptick in COVID cases and the approaching mid-term elections, Bennett said his members that survived the 2020 shutdowns feel like it can happen all over again.

“It’s like operating day-to-day with a hammer held over your head. The uncertainty is altering business plans. The value of our businesses is dropping through the floor,” Bennett said.

Brian and Mindy Hill work the counter at their bowling alley in Imlay City, Mich. on May 13, 2022. (Steven Kovac/Epoch Times)

Fred Kautz, the proprietor of Kautz’s Shore Lanes in Lexington, Michigan, started working in the family business when he was 13.

The business has 12 bowling lanes, a bar, an arcade, a restaurant, and living quarters upstairs.

“We’ve owned this place for 42 years. For me and my family, it’s more than a place to work. It’s a way of life. And it has become an institution in our community—a real gathering place,” said Kautz.

He said he is still smarting from what happened after Whitmer’s executive actions were ruled unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court in the fall of 2020.

“We got a little reprieve. We thought we were in the clear until she came back with another round of forced closures, this time under the authority of the Michigan Department of Public Health.

The first 30 days knocked us right on our butts. But we were willing to cooperate, to do our part. We were all scared and we did not want to see harm come to anybody.

We lost a lot of money at the time. We are coming back slowly, but our overall revenue is still down 20 percent from pre-pandemic days. That’s hard to make up.

“In the spring of 2020, I tried to do what was recommended and go along. Never again!

“If my Dad was still alive, he’d have never closed at all,” said Kautz.

Brian and Mindy Hill, owners of I.C. Strikes, a 16-lane bowling alley, bar, and snack bar in Imlay City said their business was hit hard by the shutdowns.

Brian was the town barber for 25 years, before purchasing the bowling alley where he learned to bowl as a child.

“We took over in December 2018. We’d saved up money to buy this place and make some upgrades. When COVID hit, we were forced to close down. It took all the money we saved for improvements just to survive,” said Brian.

The Hills said they never thought they’d see the day when their own government could do something like that to them.

Mary Bacon, assistant manager of Jump City, a family recreation center, cleans an arcade machine in Imlay City, Mich., on May 13, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

They shut us down. They took away our livelihood with no end date in sight. Then they wanted to loan us money. Think about that. They first put us in a situation where we had zero income to pay our previous debt. And then they wanted to loan us more money.

“Lots of small business people lost their businesses but kept their debt. It ruined them,” said Brian.

The Hills did apply for and receive a Small Business Administration loan at 3.25 percent interest for 30 years, and they participated in the Paycheck Protection Program which helped their business survive.

Up the road from the Hill’s bowling alley is Jump City, a large indoor recreation center offering an array of bouncy houses and arcade games for children.

Assistant manager Mary Bacon told The Epoch Times, “We lost a lot of business. We were forced to close for 15 months and had to make our payments with no income.”

Bacon remembers the morning of March 16, 2020, when many area businesses were gearing up for big St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

“By afternoon everybody had to close. All that food went to waste.

“The shutdown was supposed to be for a couple of weeks. Nobody foresaw it would drag on for a year and three months.

“Oh, they said we could open again, but they so severely restricted the number of customers that we lost all of our big birthday parties. With so few kids allowed in, we couldn’t operate. We were losing too much money.”

Bacon said people are coming back to the center but are still scared, even though the games and bouncy houses are continuously cleaned and sanitized.

Navaeh Smalstig, 8, climbs out of a bouncy house at Jump City in Imlay City, Mich., on May 13, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

Before the pandemic, Danny Brown owned a roller rink in Grand Blanc and Owasso, two south-central Michigan towns.

“The lockdowns forced us to sell the Owasso rink for less than half of what we paid for it. We will be trying to make up our loss for years to come.”

Brown, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told The Epoch Times, “To keep going I had to decide to triple our debt. Since the shutdown, I am three-quarters of a million dollars deeper in debt.

“Small businesses put everything on the line. All of our personal and family money. I am personally responsible for our debt. If I die my children will have to pay it.”

Brown said Michigan’s government acted without a real understanding and regarded the state’s small businesses as “nonessential throwaways.”

“One of the reasons we filed suit is to push the government to think differently,” he said.

According to Brown, family entertainment centers like skating rinks, bowling alleys, arcades, pool halls, miniature golf, and go-cart tracks have been nearly wiped out.

“A few years ago, there were 3,500 roller skating rinks in the United States. Now there are 700. There were five rinks in Genesee County, now there are two.” he said.

Brown attributes the decrease to years of ongoing government mandates and interference that led up to the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“They took, they stole our businesses!” he said.

Donn Slimmen, another plaintiff in the case, owns Spartan West Bowling in the west Michigan resort town of Ludington.

“The lockdown just about killed us. It was 14 to 15 months of agony. Our bank payments and utility bills didn’t stop. We went from being two to three months behind to more months behind.

“We entered into survival mode. We ate a lot of pork and beans and hotdogs. We’re still trying to work ourselves out of the hole. By the end of this summer, we might be solvent again.

“We were lucky to survive. We are still hanging on by threads,” said Slimmen.

Along with 16 bowling lanes, Slimmen operates a full-service restaurant.

It’s never come back. Pre-pandemic, we’d serve 200 customers at an ordinary Friday fish fry. Now our best night is 100.

“Our restaurant went from a thriving seated-guest business to a take-out operation grossing only two to three percent of the seated sales.

“We were spending $400 to take in proceeds of $100.

“The politicians and bureaucrats don’t understand. They never cleaned a toilet seat or climbed into a bowling machine to fix it,” said Slimmen.

Slimmen blames Gov.Gretchen Whitmer for the plight of his community and the state.

“You didn’t see Republican governors closing businesses. Their states did so much better.

“Drive through downtown Ludington or Muskegon and look at all the boarded-up storefronts. So many places are out of business. Michigan is in terrible shape,” Slimmen said.

The Tomassoni family has been in the bowling business for 84 years in the western Upper Peninsula town of Iron Mountain, Michigan.

We had to close bowling and our banquet facility a total of 161 days in two different periods of time in 2020. After the second shutdown, we could operate at 25 percent occupancy and only during restricted hours. No wedding receptions, no special events. It was a disaster.

“It ripped my heart out. I am so bitter towards my government,” said owner Pete Tomassoni.

Tomassoni’s business suffered further because of its proximity to Wisconsin which is only minutes away.

“Wisconsin closed for just 30 days. For the most part, they were wide open. That really hurt us.

“Our governor was picking and choosing which of our state’s businesses could operate. To force a business to close with no notice and without proven science is straight out wrong.

“I think that she came down so hard on small business because we, by and large, lean to the right.

“The state dangled the threat of yanking business licenses to keep people in line.

“Some of our businesses tried to defy the state and stayed open

Tyler Durden Wed, 05/18/2022 - 21:25

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