University of Houston researcher to develop culturally responsive vaccine education program
With COVID-19 vaccines more readily available than ever, there remains vaccine hesitancy in diverse communities across metropolitan Houston and beyond. Why such vaccine hesitancy exists is now the business of the University of Houston’s HEALTH Center for Addictions Research and Cancer Prevention in partnership with the Houston Health Department. With a grant of $711,773 from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the UH center seeks to discover what’s driving these disparities and to develop a culturally responsive vaccine education program to increase the reach, access and uptake of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in underserved minority communities.
Black adults in Texas represent 13% of the population and more than 18% of the health care workforce, but only about 7% of vaccine recipients. These trends persist in metropolitan Houston, where minorities make up more than 70% of the population.
“The proposed research recognizes that systemic racism is real, medical mistrust by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities is earned, and the best way to accelerate scientific breakthroughs regarding SARS-CoV-2 vaccine uptake in BIPOC communities is to include them in the research process,” said Ezemenari Obasi, director of UH’s HEALTH (Helping Everyone Achieve a Lifetime of Health) Research Institute (HRI).
“The omission of some population segments as investigators and participants in research significantly contributes to the generation and maintenance of health disparities, because less is known about factors affecting health among underrepresented groups and how to address them in culturally-informed ways,” he added.
Obasi is forming ethnically diverse focus groups on the Black and Latinx experience to include community members, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, and health care providers who will share their stories and insights about this public health crisis. The results will inspire tailored messaging to address specific needs and concerns and the creation of a culturally responsive vaccine education program.
“We really want to get ‘under the hood’ and allow the community to voice why they’re hesitant rather than have a label slapped onto them,” said Obasi, who thinks the reasons will not be as obvious as might currently be believed.
“Historically there’s been an oversimplification of why people might not want to be vaccinated and many point to historical medical mistreatment like the Tuskegee experiment. We want to uncover whether it’s more nuanced than that and understand the role that recent mixed messaging from politicians has contributed to hesitancy,” said Obasi.
With a clear understanding of the issues, prevention and intervention methods will be created.
Obasi is collaborating with UH colleagues Dr. Brian Reed, College of Medicine; Tzuan Chen and Isabel Martinez Leal, both of HRI.
NTU study of ancient corals in Indonesia reveals slowest earthquake ever recorded
A ‘slow-motion’ earthquake lasting 32 years – the slowest ever recorded – eventually led to the catastrophic 1861 Sumatra earthquake, researchers at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have found.
The NTU research team says their study highlights potential missing factors or mismodelling in global earthquake risk assessments today.
‘Slow motion’ earthquakes or ‘slow slip events’ refer to a type of long, drawn-out stress release phenomenon in which the Earth’s tectonic plates slide against one another without causing major ground shaking or destruction. They typically involve movements of between a few cm/year to cm/day.
The NTU team made the surprise discovery while studying historic sea-levels using ancient corals called ‘microatolls’ at Simeulue Island, located off the coast of Sumatra. Growing both sideways and upwards, the disc-shaped coral microatolls are natural recorders of changes in sea level and land elevation, through their visible growth patterns.
Using data from the microatolls and combining them with simulations of the motion of the Earth’s tectonic plates, the NTU team found that from 1829 until the Sumatra earthquake in 1861, south-eastern Simeulue Island was sinking faster than expected into the sea.
This slow slip event was a gradual process that relieved stress on the shallow part of where two tectonic plates met, said the NTU team. However, this stress was transferred to a neighbouring deeper segment, culminating in the massive 8.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in 1861 which led to enormous damage and loss of life.
The discovery marks the longest slow slip event ever recorded and will change global perspectives on the timespan and mechanisms of the phenomenon, says the NTU team. Scientists previously believed that slow slip events take place only over hours or months, but the NTU research shows that they could, in fact, go on for decades without triggering the disastrous shaking and tsunamis seen in historical records.
Lead author of the study, Rishav Mallick, a PhD student at the NTU Asian School of Environment, said, “It is interesting just how much we were able to discover from just a handful of ideally located coral sites. Thanks to the long timespans of the ancient corals, we were able to probe and find answers to secrets of the past. The method that we adopted in this paper will also be useful for future studies of other subduction zones – places that are prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Our study can therefore contribute to better risk assessments in future.”
Co-author Assistant Professor Aron Meltzner from the Earth Observatory of Singapore at NTU said, “When we first found these corals more than a decade ago, we knew from their growth patterns that something strange must have been going on while they grew. Now we finally have a viable explanation.”
The findings, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Geoscience in May, led the authors to suggest that current earthquake risk assessments may be overlooking ongoing slow slip events in the observations, and hence not properly considering the potential for slow slip events to trigger future earthquakes and tsunamis.
Possible ‘slow motion’ earthquake ongoing at Enggano Island
Located far from land below kilometres of water, the shallower part of the subduction zone is typically ‘quieter’ and does not produce as many earthquakes. Its distant location also makes it difficult for land-based scientific instruments to detect activities and for scientists to understand what is going on.
Many scientists have therefore tended to interpret the ‘quietness’ of the shallow part of the subduction zone to mean that the tectonic plates lying underneath to be sliding along steadily and harmlessly.
Though this might be correct in some cases, the NTU study found that this sliding is not as steady as assumed and can occur in slow slip events.
Elaborating on their findings, Rishav said, “Because such slow slip events are so slow, we might have been missing them as current instrumental records are generally only up to ten years long.”
He added, “If similar behaviour is observed leading up to earthquakes elsewhere, this process might eventually be recognised as an earthquake precursor.”
Tapping on their methodology in the research, the NTU team also highlighted a potential ongoing drawn-out slow slip event at Enggano Island, Indonesia, located at about 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Sumatra.
Asst Prof Meltzner said, “If our findings are correct, this would mean that the communities living nearby this Indonesian island are potentially facing higher risk of tsunami and earthquake than what was previously thought. This suggests that models of risk and mitigation strategies need updating.”
‘Pre-bunk’ tactics reduce public susceptibility to COVID-19 conspiracies and falsehoods
A short online game designed to fight conspiracies about COVID-19 boosts people’s confidence in detecting misinformation by increasing their ability to perceive its “manipulativeness” compared to genuine news, according to a study.
Go Viral!, developed by the University of Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Lab in partnership with the UK Cabinet Office and media agency DROG, was launched last autumn as part of the UK government’s efforts to tackle coronavirus falsehoods circulating online.
The five-minute game puts people in the shoes of a purveyor of fake pandemic news, encouraging players to create panic by spreading misinformation about COVID-19 using social media – all within the confines of the game.
Researchers say that, by giving people this taste of the techniques used to disseminate fake news, it acts as an inoculant: building a psychological resistance against malicious falsehoods by raising awareness of how misinformation works.
“While fact-checking is vital work, it can come too late. Trying to debunk misinformation after it spreads is often a difficult if not impossible task,” said Prof Sander van der Linden, Director of the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge University.
“Go Viral! is part of a new wave of interventions that aim to ‘pre-bunk’. By preemptively exposing people to a microdose of the methods used to disseminate fake news, we can help them identify and ignore it in the future.”
The latest findings on the game’s effectiveness, published in the journal Big Data and Society, are accompanied by research on another COVID-19 “prebunking” intervention used by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
UNESCO deployed infographics across social media highlighting tropes common to COVID conspiracy theories, such as claims of a “secret plot” or that the virus was spread intentionally, as part of their #ThinkBeforeSharing campaign.
“By exposing people to the methods used to produce fake news we can help create a general ‘inoculation’, rather than trying to counter each specific falsehood,” said study lead author and Cambridge Gates Scholar Melisa Basol.
The Cambridge researchers found the UNESCO approach also proved effective, albeit with a smaller effect size than the proactive game.
The Go Viral! project began with seed funding from Cambridge University’s COVID-19 rapid response fund, and was then supported and backed by the UK Cabinet Office and promoted by the World Health Organisation and UN.
The game has now been played over 400,000 times in a variety of languages – including Italian, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Brazilian Portuguese – since its October launch.
Players try and gain “likes” by promoting noxious posts on COVID-19, harnessing propaganda techniques such as fraudulent expertise and the use of emotionally charged language to stoke outrage and fear.
The final stage sees players “go viral” when they push a baseless conspiracy theory that explodes online and ignites nationwide protests.
For the new study, researchers used a sample of 3,548 players over the age of 18, including native speakers of three languages in which the game is available: English, German and French.
Study participants were shown 18 social media posts – nine containing information from credible news sources, and high-quality versions of COVID-19 conspiracies making up the rest – and asked the extent to which they felt manipulated by the framing and content of each one.
Roughly a third of the study participants then played Go Viral!, while another third – a control group – played Tetris for the same amount of time, and the final group read UNESCO’s set of “prebunking” infographics. Lastly, everyone was given the same set of news items to rate, a mixture of real and fake.
Just over half (55%) the Tetris players got better at spotting the falsehoods, little better than chance – suggesting many were guessing.
However, 74% of the “pre-bunked” Go Viral! players got much better at sensing when they were being manipulated by the misinformation: a 19 percentage point increase over the control group.
The infographics generated a more modest but still useful six percentage point increase in manipulation detection compared to the control (61% vs 55%).
When it came to confidence in their ability to spot fake news going forward, only 50% of the Tetris players said it had increased – no better than chance – whereas 67% of Go Viral! players felt they were less likely to get duped in the future.
In a follow-up survey one week after the single play of the game, participants were asked to rate a further set of real and fake social media posts about COVID-19. Go Viral! players were still rating COVID-19 misinformation as significantly more manipulative, while the effects of the UNESCO infographics had faded.
“Both interventions are fast, effective and easily scalable, with the potential to reach millions of people around the world,” said Dr Jon Roozenbeek, study co-lead author from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.
“Interestingly, our findings also show that the active inoculation of playing the game may have more longevity than passive inoculations such as reading the infographics.”
“COVID-19 falsehoods and conspiracies pose a real threat to vaccination programmes in almost every nation. Every weapon in our arsenal should be used to fight the fake news that poses a threat to herd immunity. Pre-bunking initiatives have a crucial role to play in that global fight,” Roozenbeek said.
Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, added: “Cambridge University has provided solid backing for ‘pre-bunking’ misinformation and conspiracy theories propagated and reinforced during the pandemic, which have real-life consequences undermining trust in science and fueling hate speech.
“In this context, UNESCO’s work in education and media and information literacy is even more critical to strengthen learners’ digital citizenship.”
COVID-19 vaccine does not damage the placenta in pregnancy
CHICAGO — A new Northwestern Medicine study of placentas from patients who received the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy found no evidence of injury, adding to the growing literature that COVID-19 vaccines are safe in pregnancy.
“The placenta is like the black box in an airplane. If something goes wrong with a pregnancy, we usually see changes in the placenta that can help us figure out what happened,” said corresponding author Dr. Jeffery Goldstein, assistant professor of pathology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine pathologist. “From what we can tell, the COVID vaccine does not damage the placenta.”
The study will be published May 11 in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. To the authors’ knowledge, it is the first study to examine the impact of the COVID vaccines on the placenta.
“We have reached a stage in vaccine distribution where we are seeing vaccine hesitancy, and this hesitancy is pronounced for pregnant people,” said study co-author Dr. Emily Miller, Northwestern Medicine maternal fetal medicine physician and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Feinberg. “Our team hopes these data, albeit preliminary, can reduce concerns about the risk of the vaccine to the pregnancy.”
The study authors collected placentas from 84 vaccinated patients and 116 unvaccinated patients who delivered at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago and pathologically examined the placentas whole and microscopically following birth. Most patients received vaccines – either Moderna or Pfizer – during their third trimester.
Last May, Goldstein, Miller and collaborators from Northwestern and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago published a study that found placentas of women who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus while pregnant showed evidence of injury (abnormal blood flow between mother and baby in utero). Pregnant patients who want to get vaccinated to avoid contracting the disease should feel safe doing so, Miller said.
“We are beginning to move to a framework of protecting fetuses through vaccination, rather than from vaccination,” Miller said.
In April, the scientists published a study showing pregnant women make COVID antibodies after vaccination and successfully transfer them to their fetuses.
“Until infants can get vaccinated, the only way for them to get COVID antibodies is from their mother,” Goldstein said.
The placenta’s role in the immune system
The placenta is the first organ that forms during pregnancy. It performs duties for most of the fetus’ organs while they’re still forming, such as providing oxygen while the lungs develop and nutrition while the gut is forming.
Additionally, the placenta manages hormones and the immune system, and tells the mother’s body to welcome and nurture the fetus rather than reject it as a foreign intruder.
“The Internet has amplified a concern that the vaccine might trigger an immunological response that causes the mother to reject the fetus,” Goldstein said. “But these findings lead us to believe that doesn’t happen.”
The scientists also looked for abnormal blood flow between the mother and fetus and problems with fetal blood flow – both of which have been reported in pregnant patients who have tested positive for COVID.
The rate of these injuries was the same in the vaccinated patients as for control patients, Goldstein said. The scientists also examined the placentas for chronic histiocytic intervillositis, a complication that can happen if the placenta is infected, in this case, by SARS-CoV-2. Although this study did not find any cases in vaccinated patients, it’s a very rare condition that requires a larger sample size (1,000 patients) to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated patients.
Other Northwestern study authors include Dr. Elisheva Shanes and Chiedza Mupanomunda. Dr. Leena B. Mithal and Sebastian Otero from Lurie Children’s Hospital also are study authors.
The study was funded by The Friends of Prentice, the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (grant number K08EB030120) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (grant number K23AI139337), part of the National Institutes of Health.
History of giants in the gene: Scientists use DNA to trace the origins of giant viruses
Scientists investigate the evolution of Mimivirus, one of the world’s largest viruses, through how they replicate DNA
2003 was a big year for virologists. The first giant virus was discovered in this year, which shook the virology scene, revising what was thought to be an established understanding of this elusive group and expanding the virus world from simple, small agents to forms that are as complex as some bacteria. Because of their link to disease and the difficulties in defining them–they are biological entities but do not fit comfortably in the existing tree of life–viruses incite the curiosity of many people.
Scientists have long been interested in how viruses evolved, especially when it comes to giant viruses that can produce new viruses with very little help from the host–in contrast to most small viruses, which utilize the host’s machinery to replicate.
Even though giant viruses are not what most people would think of when it comes to viruses, they are actually very common in oceans and other water bodies. They infect single-celled aquatic organisms and have major effects on the latter’s population. In fact, Dr. Kiran Kondabagil, molecular virologist at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, suggests, “Because these single-celled organisms greatly influence the carbon turnover in the ocean, the viruses have an important role in our world’s ecology. So, it is just as important to study them and their evolution, as it is to study the disease-causing viruses.”
In a recent study, the findings of which have been published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, Dr. Kondabagil and co-researcher Dr. Supriya Patil performed a series of analyses on major genes and proteins involved in the DNA replication machinery of Mimivirus, the first group of giant viruses to be identified. They aimed to determine which of two major suggestions regarding Mimivirus evolution–the reduction and the virus-first hypotheses–were more supported by their results. The reduction hypothesis suggests that the giant viruses emerged from unicellular organisms and shed genes over time; the virus-first hypothesis suggests that they were around before single-celled organisms and gained genes, instead.
Dr. Kondabagil and Dr. Patil created phylogenetic trees with replication proteins and found that those from Mimivirus were more closely related to eukaryotes than to bacteria or small viruses. Additionally, they used a technique called multidimensional scaling to determine how similar the Mimiviral proteins are. A greater similarity would indicate that the proteins co-evolved, which means that they are linked together in a larger protein complex with coordinated function. And indeed, their findings showed greater similarity. Finally, the researchers showed that genes related to DNA replication are similar to and fall under purifying selection, which is natural selection that removes harmful gene variants, constraining the genes and preventing their sequences from varying. Such a phenomenon typically occurs when the genes are involved in essential functions (like DNA replication) in an organism.
Taken together, these results imply that Mimiviral DNA replication machinery is ancient and evolved over a long period of time. This narrows us down to the reduction hypothesis, which suggests that the DNA replication machinery already existed in a unicellular ancestor, and the giant viruses were formed after getting rid of other structures in the ancestor, leaving only replication-related parts of the genome.
“Our findings are very exciting because they inform how life on earth has evolved,” Dr. Kondabagil says. “Because these giant viruses probably predate the diversification of the unicellular ancestor into bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes, they should have had major influence on the subsequent evolutionary trajectory of eukaryotes, which are their hosts.”
In terms of applications beyond this contribution to basic scientific knowledge, Dr. Kondabagil feels that their work could lay the groundwork for translational research into technology like genetic engineering and nanotechnology. He says, “An increased understanding of the mechanisms by which viruses copy themselves and self-assemble means we could potentially modify these viruses to replicate genes we want or create nanobots based on how the viruses function. The possibilities are far-reaching!”
Authors: Kiran Kondabagil and Supriya Patil
Title of original paper: Coevolutionary and Phylogenetic Analysis of Mimiviral Replication Machinery Suggest the Cellular Origin of Mimiviruses
Journal: Molecular Biology and Evolution
Affiliations: Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Powai, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
About Dr. Kiran Kondabagil from IIT Bombay
Dr. Kondabagil is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. He is also the Principal Investigator of the Molecular Virology Lab in the department. He has been a Post-doctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor at The Catholic University of America, Washington DC. He has about 9 journal articles, 3 book chapters, and 8 patents to his name. His chief areas of interest are bacteriophages, molecular microbiology, and gene targeting.
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