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Vir expands partnership with Gates Foundation, adding $50M for HIV and malaria antibody research initiative

Just two days after the US bought 600,000 more doses of Vir and GSK’s Covid-19 antibody sotrovimab effective against omicron, Vir Biotechnology announced a partnership expansion with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its T-cell vaccine program.
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Just two days after the US bought 600,000 more doses of Vir and GSK’s Covid-19 antibody sotrovimab effective against omicron, Vir Biotechnology announced a partnership expansion with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its T-cell vaccine program.

The partnership had been in place for a few years with Vir’s T-cell vaccine program targeting TB and HIV. The foundation is putting up $50 million — $10 million in the form of a grant and the rest in an equity investment.

The arrangement is for an antibody research initiative, focusing on a functional cure for HIV and malaria prevention, according to a joint statement. Part of that initiative will also include a proof-of-concept clinical trial, looking at engineered antibodies designed to both inhibit viral replication and spread in people infected with HIV. And additionally, the partners will see if these antibodies can confer a vaccine-like protective effect that could be applicable to durable HIV suppression without the use of more commonly used antiretroviral therapy. The same concept will be applied against malaria as part of preclinical research.

George Scangos

“We look forward to applying the lessons learned thus far in COVID-19, chronic hepatitis B virus infection and influenza to advance our efforts toward curing HIV and preventing malaria,” Vir CEO George Scangos said in a statement.

Just last month, the FDA cleared the first long-acting HIV-prevention injectable, handing ViiV a historic OK. The company’s treatment, Apretude, is first given as two injections a month apart, then every two months after.

“Today’s approval adds an important tool in the effort to end the HIV epidemic by providing the first option to prevent HIV that does not involve taking a daily pill,” FDA director of antivirals Debra Birnkrant said at the time.

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Haven’t had COVID yet? It could be more than just luck

Even taking into account people who have had COVID but didn’t know it, there’s still likely to be a group of people who have never been infected.

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I Wei Huang/Shutterstock

We all know a few of those lucky people who, somehow, have managed to avoid ever catching COVID. Perhaps you’re one of them. Is this a Marvel-esque superpower? Is there any scientific reason why a person might be resistant to becoming infected, when the virus seems to be everywhere? Or is it simply luck?

More than 60% of people in the UK have tested positive for COVID at least once. However, the number of people who have actually been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is thought to be higher. The calculated rate of asymptomatic infections varies depending on the study, though most agree it’s fairly common.

But even taking into account people who have had COVID and not realised it, there is still likely a group of people who never have. The reason why some people appear immune to COVID is one question that has persisted throughout the pandemic. As with so much in science, there isn’t (yet) one simple answer.

We can probably dismiss the Marvel-esque superpower theory. But science and luck likely both have a role to play. Let’s take a look.

The simplest explanation is that these people have never come into contact with the virus.

This could certainly be the case for people who have been shielding during the pandemic. People at significantly greater risk of severe disease, such as those with chronic heart or lung conditions, have had a tough couple of years.

Many of them continue to take precautions to avoid potential exposure to the virus. Even with additional safety measures, many of these people have ended up with COVID.

Due to the high level of community transmission, particularly with the extremely transmissible omicron variants, it’s very unlikely that someone going to work or school, socialising and shopping hasn’t been near someone infected with the virus. Yet there are people who have experienced high levels of exposure, such as hospital workers or family members of people who have had COVID, who have somehow managed to avoid testing positive.

We know from several studies vaccines not only reduce the risk of severe disease, but they can also cut the chance of household transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by about half. So certainly vaccination could have helped some close contacts avoid becoming infected. However, it’s important to note that these studies were done pre-omicron. The data we have on the effect of vaccination on omicron transmission is still limited.


Read more: Four strange COVID symptoms you might not have heard about


Some theories

One theory around why certain people have avoided infection is that, although they are exposed to the virus, it fails to establish an infection even after gaining entry to the airways. This could be due to a lack of the receptors needed for SARS-CoV-2 to gain access to cells.

Once a person does become infected, researchers have identified that differences in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 play a role in determining the severity of symptoms. It is possible that a quick and robust immune response could prevent the virus from replicating to any great degree in the first instance.

The efficacy of our immune response to infection is largely defined by our age and our genetics. That said, a healthy lifestyle certainly helps. For example, we know that vitamin D deficiency can increase the risk of certain infections. Not getting enough sleep can also have a detrimental effect on our body’s ability to fight invading pathogens.

An illustration of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus needs to attach to receptors to gain access to our cells. Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock

Scientists studying the underlying causes of severe COVID have identified a genetic cause in nearly 20% of critical cases. Just as genetics could be one determining factor of disease severity, our genetic makeup may also hold the key to resistance to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

I research SARS-CoV-2 infection on nasal cells from human donors. We grow these cells on plastic dishes which we can then add virus to and investigate how the cells respond. During our research we found one donor whose cells could not be infected with SARS-CoV-2.

We discovered some really interesting genetic mutations, including several involved with the body’s immune response to infection, that could explain why. A mutation we identified in a gene involved with sensing the presence of a virus has previously been shown to confer resistance to HIV infection. Our research is on a small number of donors and highlights that we’re still only scraping the surface of research into genetic susceptibility or resistance to infections.

There’s also the possibility that previous infection with other types of coronaviruses results in cross-reactive immunity. This is where our immune system may recognise SARS-CoV-2 as being similar to a recent invading virus and launch an immune response. There are seven coronaviruses that infect humans: four that cause the common cold, and one each that cause Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and COVID.

How long-lasting this immunity may be is another question. Seasonal coronaviruses that circulated pre-2020 were able to reinfect the same people after 12 months.


Read more: The common cold might protect you from coronavirus – here's how


If you’ve managed to avoid COVID to date, maybe you do have natural immunity to SARS-CoV-2 infection, or perhaps you’ve just been lucky. Either way, it’s sensible to continue to take precautions against this virus that we still know so little about.

Lindsay Broadbent receives funding from The Wellcome Trust.

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“Natural immunity” from omicron is weak and limited, study finds

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—May 18, 2022—In unvaccinated people, infection with the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 provides little long-term immunity against…

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA—May 18, 2022—In unvaccinated people, infection with the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 provides little long-term immunity against other variants, according to a new study by researchers at Gladstone Institutes and UC San Francisco (UCSF), published today in the journal Nature.

Credit: Photo: Michael Short/Gladstone Institutes

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—May 18, 2022—In unvaccinated people, infection with the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 provides little long-term immunity against other variants, according to a new study by researchers at Gladstone Institutes and UC San Francisco (UCSF), published today in the journal Nature.

In experiments using mice and blood samples from donors who were infected with Omicron, the team found that the Omicron variant induces only a weak immune response. In vaccinated individuals, this response—while weak—helped strengthen overall protection against a variety of COVID-19 strains. In those without prior vaccination, however, the immune response failed to confer broad, robust protection against other strains.

“In the unvaccinated population, an infection with Omicron might be roughly equivalent to getting one shot of a vaccine,” says Melanie Ott, MD, PhD, director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology and co-senior author of the new work. “It confers a little bit of protection against COVID-19, but it’s not very broad.”

“This research underscores the importance of staying current with your vaccinations, even if you have previously been infected with the Omicron variant, as you are still likely vulnerable to re-infection,” says co-senior author Jennifer Doudna, PhD, who is a senior investigator at Gladstone, a professor at UC Berkeley, founder of the Innovative Genomics Institute, and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

A Weaker Infection

As the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 spread around the globe in late 2021 and early 2022, anecdotal evidence quickly mounted that it was causing less severe symptoms than Delta and other variants of concern. However, scientists weren’t initially sure why that was, or how a weaker infection might impact long-term immunity against COVID-19.

“When the Omicron variant first emerged, a lot of people wondered whether it could essentially act as a vaccine for people who didn’t want to get vaccinated, eliciting a strong and broad-acting immune response,” says Irene Chen, co-first author of the new study and graduate student in Ott’s lab. Other first authors are Rahul Suryawanshi, PhD, a Gladstone staff research scientist, and Tongcui Ma, PhD, scientist in the Roan Lab at Gladstone.

To find the answer, the team of researchers first examined the effect of Omicron in mice. Compared to an ancestral strain of SARS-CoV-2 and the Delta variant, Omicron led to far fewer symptoms in the mice. However, the virus was detected in airway cells, albeit at lower levels. Similarly, Omicron was able to infect isolated human cells but replicated less than other variants.

The team then characterized the immune response generated by Omicron infections. In mice infected with Omicron, despite the milder symptoms, the immune system still generated the T cells and antibodies typically seen in response to other viruses.

“We demonstrated in this study that the lower pathogenicity of Omicron is not because the virus cannot take hold,” says Nadia Roan, PhD, an associate investigator at Gladstone.

That leaves other reasons that might explain why Omicron differs from other variants in terms of symptoms and immunity, including the lower replication seen with Omicron or the types of antibodies that the immune system generates in response to the virus.

No Cross-Variant Protection

To gauge how the immune response against Omicron fared over time, the researchers collected blood samples from mice infected with the ancestral, Delta, or Omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2 and measured the ability of their immune cells and antibodies to recognize five different viral variants—ancestral (WA1), Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron.

Blood from uninfected animals was unable to neutralize any of the viruses—in other words, block the ability of any of the viruses to copy themselves. Samples from WA1-infected animals could neutralize Alpha and, to a lesser degree, the Beta and Delta virus—but not Omicron. Samples from Delta-infected mice could neutralize Delta, Alpha and, to a lesser degree, the Omicron and Beta virus.

However, blood from Omicron-infected mice could only neutralize the Omicron variant.

The team confirmed these results using blood from ten unvaccinated people who had been infected with Omicron—their blood was not able to neutralize other variants. When they tested blood from 11 unvaccinated people who had been infected with Delta, the samples could neutralize Delta and, as had been seen in mice, the other variants to a lesser extent.

When they repeated the experiments with blood from vaccinated people, the results were different: vaccinated individuals with confirmed Omicron or Delta breakthrough infections all showed the ability to neutralize all the tested variants, conferring higher protection.

“When it comes to other variants that might evolve in the future, we can’t predict exactly what would happen, but based on these results, I’d suspect that unvaccinated people who were infected with Omicron will have very little protection,” says Ott. “But on the contrary, vaccinated individuals are likely to be more broadly protected against future variants, especially if they had a breakthrough infection.”

“Our results may be useful not only to inform individuals’ decisions on vaccination, but also for the design of future COVID-19 vaccines that confer broad protection against many variants,” says Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, a professor of infectious diseases at UCSF and a co-senior author of the work.

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About the Research Project

The paper “Limited Cross-Variant Immunity after Infection with the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron Variant Without Vaccination” was published in the journal Nature on May 18, 2022.

Other authors are Abdullah Syed, Camille Simoneau, Alison Ciling, Mir Khalid, Bharath Sreekumar, Pei-Yi Chen, Renuka Kumar, Mauricio Montano, Ronne Gascon, Frank Soveg, Ashley George, and Warner Greene of Gladstone; Noah Brazer, Prachi Saldhi, Miguel Garcia-Knight, Alicia Sotomayor-Gonzalez, Venice Servillita, Amelia Gliwa, Jenny Nguyen, Xiaohui Fang, Mazharul Maishan, Michael Matthay, and Raul Andino of UCSF; and Ines Silva, Bilal Milbes, Noah Kojima, Victoria Hess, Maria Shacreaw, Lauren Lopez, Matthew Brobeck, Fred Turner, and Lee Spraggon of Curative, Inc.

The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants F31 AI164671-01, U54HL147127 and R21AI59666), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (PDF-533021-2019), the Roddenberry Foundation, Pamela and Edward Taft, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Van Auken Private Foundation, David Henke, Emergent Ventures at the Mercatus Center (Fast Grants #2164 and #2208), George Mason University, the Innovative Genomics Institute, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (75D30121C10991), Abbott Laboratories, and the Sandler Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research at UCSF.

About Gladstone Institutes

To ensure our work does the greatest good, Gladstone Institutes focuses on conditions with profound medical, economic, and social impact—unsolved diseases. Gladstone is an independent, nonprofit life science research organization that uses visionary science and technology to overcome disease. It has an academic affiliation with the University of California, San Francisco.


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Shortage of workers threatens UK recovery – here’s why and what to do about it

The nation has very low unemployment figures, but that masks a complex labour market.

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For the first time since records began, there are more job vacancies in the UK than unemployed people, according to the latest monthly labour market figures. This has been driven mainly by a near-fourfold surge in job vacancies to around 1.3 million since the summer of 2020, when economic activity was allowed to resume at the end of the first COVID lockdown.

Record vacancies might seem like a good thing in terms of maintaining low unemployment. But employers across all sectors of the economy are struggling to fill vacancies, which limits economic recovery. So what explains all these vacancies, and what can be done about them?

First of all, the spectacular rise in job vacancies goes far beyond a pre-pandemic “bounce back”. Although the biggest shortages are in hospitality, there have been substantial rises across most sectors. All are above pre-pandemic levels.

Job vacancies and unemployment (thousands)

Office for National Statistics (2020), Vacancy Survey and Labour Force Survey

Demand for labour (that’s all employment plus vacancies) has recovered to almost exactly its pre-pandemic level. But the data indicates that the increase in vacancies is not due to a surge in demand for labour, but because the labour force is shrinking: it dropped by 1.6% or 561,000 between the first quarters (Jan-March) of 2020 and 2022, which is greater than the increase in job vacancies over the same period (492,000).

Notably, people’s reasons for being economically inactive have changed over the past couple of years. Following the first COVID lockdown, the large drop in labour supply among 16-64s (those of working age) was mainly driven by rises in long-term sickness (139,000) and early retirement (70,000).

Reasons for economic inactivity over time, 16-64 year olds

Chart showing why 16-64s are economically inactive over time
Note: the chart shows quarterly rolling years. Author calculations of ONS Annual Population Survey, accessed via Nomis

The drop in the workforce also masks a considerable churn within it, which may be adding to employers’ difficulties in recruiting staff. During the first lockdown, the number of EU workers fell by some 300,000. This has partially recovered, as you can see in the chart below, but there are still around 100,000 fewer than at the start of the pandemic.

Yet this has been more than offset by continued long-term growth in the number of non-EU foreign-born workers in the UK, increasing by some 170,000 since the start of the pandemic. Brexit, in other words, in tandem with the pandemic, has been a source of churn in the labour market.

Change in non UK-born workforce 2019-21

Chart showing what has happened to non-UK nationals working in UK over time
Note: although likely to be indicative of trends, non-UK residents may be underestimated due to the Annual Population Survey/Labour Force Survey shifting from face-to-face to online data collection during the pandemic. Data is currently subject to review and may be revised. Authors' calculations of ONS (2022) Labour Force Survey

The geographic dimension

Until now, little has been known about where this sharp rise in vacancies has been happening, which is an important question if the government is to be able to address geographical imbalances in the economy through its “levelling up” policy.

To help remedy this, we have been studying comprehensive online job vacancy data obtained under a special research agreement with the Urban Big Data Centre at the University of Glasgow to use data scraped from the Adzuna job vacancy search engine. Our data analysis is not yet published in the academic literature, but it provides an early indication of the overall pattern.

The rise in the rate of job vacancies appears remarkably uneven across local authority districts in Great Britain. The two maps below show the change from before the pandemic in February 2020 (on the left) to July 2021 (on the right), the most recent month for which we have been able to compute data. This is likely to still be indicative of the most recent geographic pattern.

Vacancies growth between February 2020 and July 2021

GB maps showing job vacancies by council district
Authors’ calculations based on Adzuna vacancy data (Adzuna. Economic and Social Research Council. Adzuna Data, 2022 [data collection]. University of Glasgow - Urban Big Data Centre), ONS Business Register and employer survey and ONS local authority boundaries

It shows huge increases in vacancies in relatively few districts, while most others show either modest increases or falls. The highest rates are particularly found in remoter rural areas, particularly in the south-west and north-west of England, and in parts of inner London.

Many of these districts are dependent on foreign labour, particularly for agriculture in rural areas, and hospitality and other sectors in London. Again, this may be a sign of the effect of Brexit and the pandemic choking off the growth in the number of EU workers.

What can’t be denied is that the employment market has been restructured in several major inter-related ways in a relatively short period, not only with Brexit but also thanks to rapid increases in remote online working, disruption to global supply-chains and COVID-related ill health.

It would make sense for these factors to produce “mismatches” between the skills and locations of workers and vacancies. For example, many job seekers have skills in declining occupations, such as skilled manual work. Our own analysis backs this up, since we see more job seekers than vacancies in some former industrial towns, particularly in the West Midlands and northern England – exactly the opposite problem to some inner London boroughs and rural districts.

What should be done

Places across the UK where job vacancies are concentrated are likely to experience sharp economic contractions if they are unable to attract more workers soon. Yet the areas that have experienced drops or weak growth in vacancies compared to before the pandemic are also a concern, as they may have been hit harder by issues like global supply chains and the pandemic and may not have enough jobs to go around.

Policies to combat Britain’s labour shortage must therefore be geographically targeted. Areas in need of more jobs, particularly higher-paying jobs, often require long-term investment in infrastructure and skills.

But to help areas in need of more workers, there will need to be creative solutions such as employers offering attractive packages including training and flexible working, and local and national authorities ensuring adequate local availability of affordable housing.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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