Viral reservoir could be behind persistence, says study, which also suggests a blood biomarker could be found for clinical laboratory testing
Microbiologists and virologists working closely with physicians treating long COVID-19 patients will gain new insights in a study that found coronavirus spike protein in COVID-19 patients’ blood up to 12 months after diagnosis. The researchers believe their findings could be used to develop a clinical laboratory biomarker for long COVID-19.
“The half-life of spike protein in the body is pretty short, so its presence indicates that there must be some kind of active viral reservoir,” said David Walt, PhD (above), Professor of Pathology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and lead author of the study that found coronavirus spike protein in long COVID patients. The study findings indicate a potential clinical laboratory biomarker for long COVID-19. (Photo copyright: Brigham and Women’s Hospital.)
Viral Reservoir Possibly Behind Long COVID-19
The study suggests that SARS-CoV-2 finds a home in the body, particularly the gastrointestinal tract, “through viral reservoirs, where it continues to release spike protein and trigger inflammation,” Medical News Today reported.
Lead author of the study David Walt, PhD, Professor of Pathology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Hansjörg Wyss Professor Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard Medical School, told The Guardian he “was motivated to carry out the study after earlier research by his colleagues detected genetic material from the COVID virus (viral RNA) in stool samples from children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome (a rare but serious condition that often strikes around four weeks after catching COVID) as well as spike protein and a marker of gut leakiness in their blood.”
Long COVID—also known as long-haul COVID, post-COVID-19, or its technical name, post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 or PASC—can involve health problems continuing weeks, months, or even years after a positive diagnosis, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Symptoms of long COVID, according to the researchers, include:
loss of smell,
gastrointestinal distress, and
shortness of breath.
“If someone could somehow get to that viral load and eliminate it, it might lead to resolution of symptoms,” Walt told the Boston Globe, which noted that the researchers may explore a clinical trial involving antiviral drugs for treatment of long COVID-19.
Although these earlier studies provided clues, the cause of PASC remains unclear, the researchers noted. They planned to take a more precise look at PASC biology by using appropriate sampling and patient recruitment.
“Disentangling the complex biology of PASC will rely on the identification of biomarkers that enable classification of patient phenotypes. Here, we analyze plasma samples collected from PASC and COVID-19 patients to determine the levels of SARS-CoV-2 antigens and cytokines and identify a blood biomarker that appears in the majority of PASC patients,” the researchers wrote.
Finding a Marker of a Persistent Infection
The researchers used plasma samples from 63 people with a previous SARS-CoV-2 diagnosis (37 also had PASC), Medical News Today reported. Over a 12-month period, the researchers’ findings included:
Detection in 65% of PASC samples of full-length spike, S1 spike, and nucleocapsid throughout the year of testing.
Spike detected in 60% of PASC patient samples, and not found in the COVID-19 samples.
In an interview with Scientific American, bioengineer Zoe Swank PhD, post-doctoral researcher, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and co-author of the study, said, “Our main hypothesis is that the spike protein is not causing the symptoms, but it’s just a marker that is released because you still have infection of some cells with SARS-CoV-2.”
In that article, Swank shared the scientists’ intent to do more research involving hundreds of samples over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic from many hospitals and people.
COVID-19 Not the Only Virus That Hangs On
Having a long-haul COVID-19 marker is a “game-changer,” according to an infectious disease expert who was not involved in the study.
“There has not so far been a clear, objective marker that is measurable in the blood of people experiencing long COVID-19,” Michael Peluso, MD, Assistant Professor, Medicine, University of California San Francisco, told Scientific American. “I hope their findings will hold up. It really would make a difference for a lot of people if a marker like this could be validated,” he added.
However, COVID-19 is not the only virus that could persist. Ebola also may linger in areas that skirt the immune system, such as the eye interior and central nervous system, according to a World Health Organization fact sheet.
Thus, medical laboratory leaders may want to follow the Brigham and Women’s Hospital research to see if the scientists validate their finding, discover a biomarker for long-haul COVID-19, and pursue a clinical trial for antiviral drugs. Such discoveries could have implications for how diagnostic professionals work with physicians to care for long COVID patients.
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Proof of vaccination, masking, and availability of on-site testing will continue to be measures taken at in-person events for pathologists and medical laboratory professionals
Organizers of in-person clinical laboratory conferences face an interesting dilemma as they plan events in 2022: Where do they draw the line with COVID-19 safety protocols?
On one hand, the surge of cases caused by the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant seems to be in its waning stages and large swaths of the population are vaccinated. On the other hand, clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology events want potential registrants to have confidence that it is safe to travel and attend the gatherings.
One lab industry conference producer who happens to be knee-deep in preparing for an in-person meeting this spring is Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of The Dark Report and Founder of the 27th Annual Executive War College on Laboratory and Pathology Management. This informative event takes place on April 27-28 in New Orleans and includes COVID-19 protocols to protect attendees.
“It’s important for all those planning to attend this year’s Executive War College to know that screening COVID-19 protocols will be in place to ensure the health and safety of all participants,” Michel noted. “We did a large lab conference in the fall of 2021 that included protocols for COVID-19 and the attendees told us they appreciated the protection provided by those protocols.”
After a significant rise in COVID-19 cases in January 2022 due to the Omicron variant, current daily case levels now are lower than they were six months ago before the new variant hit, according to numbers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
COVID-19 protocols included a daily set of questions and a temperature check for all speakers and attendees before they were allowed to enter the conference area.
CLIA-complex rapid PCR COVID-19 tests were available for individuals whose temperature and answers to the screening questions indicated the need for such testing.
Attendees used an app to answer the daily screening questions and upload proof of vaccination.
“At last fall’s Executive War College, approximately 400 attendees were screened on each of the three days before entering the conference area and not one rapid COVID-19 test was needed,” Michel said. “Not only is that an outstanding outcome, but a number of attendees also told us they appreciated our efforts to keep them safe and protect their health.”
Proof of Vaccination Has Been Required at Other Clinical Lab Industry Events
Organizers of other clinical lab conferences also have dealt with COVID-19 safety protocols. For example, the American Clinical Laboratory Association (ACLA) will hold its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on March 9. COVID-19-related requirements for attendees will include proof of vaccination uploaded to a vaccine verification vendor and proof of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to the event.
The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) occurs later this year in September in Chicago—too early yet to publish protocols. Last year’s ASCP conference in Boston was a hybrid event, offering both in-person and virtual options. Those who attended in person needed to upload proof of vaccination to a third-party vendor and were required to wear masks. On-site COVID-19 testing was available.
Revived Corporate Travel Could Boost Clinical Laboratory Conferences
The path back to live events across all industries has not been easy given various COVID-19 surges, political divisiveness over masking, frozen corporate travel budgets, and corporate policies banning or limiting employee travel.
Conference organizers throughout the United States universally hope those barriers will lower as 2022 progresses.
“With the fast-spreading Omicron triggering another round of setbacks to start 2022, event planners now are betting on spring to finally mark a turning point for the hard-hit industry,” MarketWatch reported on Feb. 4. “Their hopes hinge on American corporations taking a note from the recovery already under way for domestic air travel for leisure purposes, with the linchpin being a robust revival of trade show attendance and other in-person business gatherings.”
For Michel, offering actionable advice through well-thought-out sessions has been a cornerstone of the content offered each year at the Executive War College. He believes that approach will continue to be the strongest drawing point for clinical laboratory and pathology executives now considering attending the event.
“Our reading of the tea leaves is that across the profession of laboratory medicine, a great many managers, administrators, executives, and pathologists want to return to in-person conferences,” Michel noted. “Registrations for our April event are running ahead of 2019, and people tell us that they recognize the changes in healthcare and the lab marketplace because of the pandemic. They want to understand what’s driving current trends, like greater consumer involvement in lab testing and how to get private payers to reimburse claims for COVID-19 and genetic tests, as well as how a growing number of clinical laboratories are incorporating artificial intelligence solutions in both clinical care settings and lab operations.”
But COVID-19 is just the latest in a string of pandemics that spread across the planet in the past century. Since 1900, there have been four major international pandemics resulting in millions of deaths. But how many people even remember them? And how many pathologists, microbiologists, and clinical laboratory scientists working today experienced even the most recent of these four global pandemics?
Here is a summary/review of these major pandemics to give clinical laboratory professionals context for comparing the COVID-19 pandemic to past pandemics.
Spanish Flu of 1918
The 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu, was the most severe and deadliest pandemic of the 20th century. This pandemic was caused by a novel strand of the H1N1 virus that had avian origins. It is estimated that approximately one third of the world’s population (at that time) became infected with the virus.
“All those pandemics that have happened since—1957, 1968, 2009—all those pandemics are derivatives of the 1918 flu,” he told The Washington Post. “The flu viruses that people get this year, or last year, are all still directly related to the 1918 ancestor.”
1957 Asian Flu
The H2N2 virus, which caused the Asian Flu, first emerged in East Asia in February 1957 and quickly spread to other countries throughout Asia. The virus reached the shores of the US by the summer of 1957, where the number of infections continued to rise, especially among the elderly, children, and pregnant women.
Between 1957-1958, the Asian Flu spread across the planet causing between one to two million deaths, including 116,000 deaths in the US alone. However, this pandemic could have been much worse were it not for the efforts of microbiologist and vaccinologist Maurice Hilleman, PhD, who in 1958 was Chief of the Department of Virus Diseases at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Concerned that the Asian flu would wreak havoc on the US, Hilleman—who today is considered the father of modern vaccines—researched and created a vaccine for it in four months. Public health experts estimated the number of US deaths could have reached over one million without the fast arrival of the vaccine, noted Scientific American, adding that though Hilleman “is little remembered today, he also helped develop nine of the 14 children’s vaccines that are now recommended.”
1968 Hong Kong Flu
The 1968 influenza pandemic known as the Hong Kong flu emerged in China and persisted for several years. Within weeks of its emergence in the heavily populated Hong Kong, the flu had infected more than 500,000 people. Within months, the highly contagious virus had gone global.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, this pandemic was initiated by the influenza A subtype H3N2 virus and is suspected to have evolved from the viral strain that caused the 1957 flu pandemic through a process called antigenic shift. In this case, the hemagglutinin (H) antigen located on the outer surface of the virus underwent a genetic mutation to manufacture the new H3 antigen. Persons who had been exposed to the 1957 flu virus seemed to retain immune protection against the 1968 virus, which, Britannica noted, could help explain the relative mildness of the 1968 outbreak.
It is estimated that the 1968 Hong Kong Flu killed one to four million people worldwide, with approximately 100,000 of those deaths occurring in the US. A vaccine for the virus was available by the end of 1968 and the outbreaks appeared to be under control the following year. The H3N2 virus continues to circulate worldwide as a seasonal influenza A virus.
2009 H1N1 Swine Flu
In the spring of 2009, the novel H1N1 influenza virus that caused the Swine Flu pandemic was first detected in California. It soon spread across the US and the world. This new H1N1 virus contained a unique combination of influenza genes not previously identified in animals or people. By the time the World Health Organization (WHO) declared this flu to be a pandemic in June of 2009, a total of 74 countries and territories had reported confirmed cases of the disease. The CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases of Swine Flu infections in the US between April 2009 and April 2010 that resulted in approximately 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths.
This pandemic primarily affected children and young and middle-aged adults and was less severe than previous pandemics. Nevertheless, the H1N1 pandemic dramatically increased clinical laboratory test volumes, as Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report, covered in “Influenza A/H1N1 Outbreak Offers Lessons for Labs,” TDR June 8, 2009.
“Laboratories in the United States experienced a phenomenal surge in specimen volume during the first few weeks of the outbreak of A/H1N1. This event shows that the capacity in our nation’s public health system for large amounts of testing is inadequate,” Steven B. Kleiboeker, DVM, PhD, told The Dark Report. At that time Kleiboeker was Chief Scientific Officer and a Vice-President of ViraCor Laboratories in Lee’s Summit, Mo.
1.7 Million ‘Undiscovered’ Viruses
As people travel more frequently between countries, it is unlikely that COVID-19 will be the last pandemic that we encounter. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), there are 1.7 million “undiscovered” viruses that exist in mammals and birds and approximately 827,000 of those viruses have the ability to infect humans.
Thus, it remains the job of pathologists and clinical laboratories worldwide to remain ever vigilant and prepared for the next global pandemic.
The Department of Justice steps beyond the law’s original focus on opioid-related lab testing fraud
An interesting aspect with enforcement of the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act of 2018 (EKRA) is the government’s willingness to go after charges tied to fraudulent COVID-19 testing.
The case U.S. vs. Malena Badon Lepetich provides a good example of this approach. A grand jury indicted Lepetich on various healthcare fraud charges last year, including that she allegedly offered to pay kickbacks for referrals of specimens for COVID-19 testing.
“The government had really only used EKRA in the context of addiction treatment space,” attorney Alexander Porter, a Partner at law firm Davis Wright Tremaine in Los Angeles, said in the latest issue of The Dark Report. “The Lepetich case shows that the government’s going to use EKRA beyond that context and go into other areas where they think that it can be useful—in particular, in the area of COVID-19 testing.”
Clinical laboratories and pathology groups should take note of this development.
Defendant Allegedly Filed $10 Million in Fraudulent Lab Claims
Lepetich was the owner of MedLogic, a clinical laboratory in Baton Rouge, La.
In addition to the fraudulent COVID-19 testing charges, she allegedly solicited and received kickbacks in exchange for referrals of urine specimens for medically unnecessary tests, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
EKRA Provisions Rose from the Opioid Crisis in the U.S.
EKRA is a criminal law that falls under the Communities and Patients Act, which lifted restrictions on medications for opioid treatment and sought to limit overprescribing of opioid painkillers. Originally, EKRA targeted fraudulent practices at sober homes and substance abuse treatment centers. However, the final draft of the bill added clinical laboratories to the list of providers under potential scrutiny.
At the time Congress passed EKRA, the law was primarily aimed at fraudulent activity in opioid treatment centers, including related lab testing.
A contentious part of EKRA for clinical laboratories and pathology groups is that certain conduct protected under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute is treated as a criminal offense under EKRA. Some common lab practices come under that confusing designation, such as paying lab sales reps on a commission-based formula based on testing volumes they generate.