Coronavirus: why we’re using llamas to help fight the pandemic

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Gary Stephens, University of Reading

The search is on for effective treatments to combat the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Given the lengthy development process for vaccines, one major immediate priority is the development of selective antibodies that can neutralise the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19. And a particularly exciting new advance is the recent development of “nanobody” technology.

Nanobodies are smaller, more stable types of antibody taken from the immune systems of camelid species – such as llamas, alpacas and camels – that could be more effective at fighting disease. A recent report confirmed that llama nanobodies could neutralise the SARS and MERS viruses and could also be engineered to fight SARS-CoV-2.

Since 2015, the University of Reading has collaborated with several academic and industry partners to generate specialised nanobodies from llamas. We currently keep a herd of 15 llamas at the university, including a recent unexpected arrival in the form of a cria (baby llama), whose mother surprised everyone when her pregnancy was discovered.

The timing of the birth coincided with the leadership contest of the UK Conservative Party in July 2019 and an online poll was launched to name the cria “Boris” or “Jeremy” after the candidates Johnson and Hunt. Jeremy won on this occasion and so baby Jeremy has joined the effort to discover new nanobodies, along with older llamas such as Fifi, who is leading our search for COVID nanobodies.

Fifi the llama is among those providing blood samples for COVID-19 research. University of Reading, Author provided

Our aim is to generate llama nanobodies that bind to proteins in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These proteins include the “spike” glycoprotein that enables the virus to enter human cells, so these nanobodies could help neutralise it.

We inject the llamas with isolated proteins from the virus and then collect samples of their blood containing nanobodies produced in response by the immune system. Because we are only injecting individual proteins not the entire virus, the animals are not infected. We work with a range of partners, including those at the University of Oxford, Rosalind Franklin Institute and Francis Crick Institute, who extract and test the nanobodies and then reproduce them at a larger scale.

This strategy was recently given a boost by the report that researchers in the US and Belgium had generated llama nanobodies that bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV coronaviruses behind the SARS and MERS diseases, respectively. What was particularly encouraging was that researchers also demonstrated that engineered nanobodies could neutralise these viruses, but also SARS-CoV-2, in the lab.

They also noted that a conventional antibody (called CR3022), another one that is good at binding to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, was unable to neutralise the virus in the same way that the llama nanobody was able to.

Now the hope is that similar llama nanobodies directed specifically against the SARS-CoV-2 version of the spike protein – and potentially against an additional range of viral proteins – may hold the key to combating COVID-19. The next step would be to trial the nanobodies in small animals and then non-human primates.

If this is successful, the authors of the report estimate the first tests of their nanobodies in humans could occur in around one year’s time. Due to their small size, nanobodies could potentially be converted into a fine spray (nebulised) and inhaled – ideal for a respiratory disease such as COVID-19.

Tiny defenders

Llama nanobodies have several potential advantages over conventional antibodies. Each type of antibody is a large compound consisting of “light” and “heavy” chains of molecules, some parts of which are always the same and some parts of which vary between individual antibodies. By contrast, nanobodies consist only of the variable part of heavy chain (VHH).

The VHH region is the “business” part of the molecule, responsible for binding to whatever invader it was created to fight. This means nanobodies can have similar neutralising function to their larger antibody relatives without the extra baggage that other chains add. As a result, nanobodies may be able to access targets that conventional antibodies cannot reach and better avoid detection by the virus. Nanobodies are also more stable in response to heat or chemical attack.

Nanobodies can be produced, stored and even stockpiled as needed. Their properties mean they can be used to bind to and stabilise protein molecules, such as those that may cause disease in the body. The first nanobody drug, capacizumab, was approved in 2018 and binds to a protein present in human blood to prevent a rare blood clotting disease.

There are also other ways in which a nanobody used against a coronavirus protein could be useful. If a nanobody can bind to a viral protein then this could allow gathering of detailed information about the structure of the protein and how it is presented within the virus.

This could help in the development of new drugs that may treat the infection. Llama nanobodies might also be used to develop much-needed, efficient and rapid diagnostic tests.

Because our work involves animals, it’s important to note that the University of Reading is a signatory to the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK. In 2019, the university won an Openness Award for its llama research social media campaign. The university is also committed to the principles of “the 3Rs”, working to replace, reduce and refine procedures on animals.

Gary Stephens, Professor of Pharmacology, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

https://oddrops.blog/2020/05/26/8523/

Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking

No matter the details of the plot, conspiracy theories follow common patterns of thought.
Ranta Images/iStock/Getty Images Plus

John Cook, George Mason University; Sander van der Linden, University of Cambridge; Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol, and Ullrich Ecker, University of Western Australia

The conspiracy theory video “Plandemic” recently went viral. Despite being taken down by YouTube and Facebook, it continues to get uploaded and viewed millions of times. The video is an interview with conspiracy theorist Judy Mikovits, a disgraced former virology researcher who believes the COVID-19 pandemic is based on vast deception, with the purpose of profiting from selling vaccinations.

The video is rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories. Many high-quality fact-checks and debunkings have been published by reputable outlets such as Science, Politifact and FactCheck.

As scholars who research how to counter science misinformation and conspiracy theories, we believe there is also value in exposing the rhetorical techniques used in “Plandemic.” As we outline in our Conspiracy Theory Handbook and How to Spot COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories, there are seven distinctive traits of conspiratorial thinking. “Plandemic” offers textbook examples of them all.

Learning these traits can help you spot the red flags of a baseless conspiracy theory and hopefully build up some resistance to being taken in by this kind of thinking. This is an important skill given the current surge of pandemic-fueled conspiracy theories.

The seven traits of conspiratorial thinking.
John Cook, CC BY-ND

1. Contradictory beliefs

Conspiracy theorists are so committed to disbelieving an official account, it doesn’t matter if their belief system is internally contradictory. The “Plandemic” video advances two false origin stories for the coronavirus. It argues that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab in Wuhan – but also argues that everybody already has the coronavirus from previous vaccinations, and wearing masks activates it. Believing both causes is mutually inconsistent.

2. Overriding suspicion

Conspiracy theorists are overwhelmingly suspicious toward the official account. That means any scientific evidence that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory must be faked.

But if you think the scientific data is faked, that leads down the rabbit hole of believing that any scientific organization publishing or endorsing research consistent with the “official account” must be in on the conspiracy. For COVID-19, this includes the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, Anthony Fauci… basically, any group or person who actually knows anything about science must be part of the conspiracy.

3. Nefarious intent

In a conspiracy theory, the conspirators are assumed to have evil motives. In the case of “Plandemic,” there’s no limit to the nefarious intent. The video suggests scientists including Anthony Fauci engineered the COVID-19 pandemic, a plot which involves killing hundreds of thousands of people so far for potentially billions of dollars of profit.

Conspiratorial thinking finds evil intentions at all levels of the presumed conspiracy.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

4. Conviction something’s wrong

Conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable. But those revisions tend not to change their overall conclusion that “something must be wrong” and that the official account is based on deception.

When “Plandemic” filmmaker Mikki Willis was asked if he really believed COVID-19 was intentionally started for profit, his response was “I don’t know, to be clear, if it’s an intentional or naturally occurring situation. I have no idea.”

He has no idea. All he knows for sure is something must be wrong: “It’s too fishy.”

5. Persecuted victim

Conspiracy theorists think of themselves as the victims of organized persecution. “Plandemic” further ratchets up the persecuted victimhood by characterizing the entire world population as victims of a vast deception, which is disseminated by the media and even ourselves as unwitting accomplices.

At the same time, conspiracy theorists see themselves as brave heroes taking on the villainous conspirators.

6. Immunity to evidence

It’s so hard to change a conspiracy theorist’s mind because their theories are self-sealing. Even absence of evidence for a theory becomes evidence for the theory: The reason there’s no proof of the conspiracy is because the conspirators did such a good job covering it up.

7. Reinterpreting randomness

Conspiracy theorists see patterns everywhere – they’re all about connecting the dots. Random events are reinterpreted as being caused by the conspiracy and woven into a broader, interconnected pattern. Any connections are imbued with sinister meaning.

For example, the “Plandemic” video suggestively points to the U.S. National Institutes of Health funding that has gone to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. This is despite the fact that the lab is just one of many international collaborators on a project that sought to examine the risk of future viruses emerging from wildlife.

Learning about common traits of conspiratorial thinking can help you recognize and resist conspiracy theories.

Critical thinking is the antidote

As we explore in our Conspiracy Theory Handbook, there are a variety of strategies you can use in response to conspiracy theories.

One approach is to inoculate yourself and your social networks by identifying and calling out the traits of conspiratorial thinking. Another approach is to “cognitively empower” people, by encouraging them to think analytically. The antidote to conspiratorial thinking is critical thinking, which involves healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence.

Understanding and revealing the techniques of conspiracy theorists is key to inoculating yourself and others from being misled, especially when we are most vulnerable: in times of crises and uncertainty.

[Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

John Cook, Research Assistant Professor, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University; Sander van der Linden, Director, Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, University of Cambridge; Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol, and Ullrich Ecker, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

https://oddrops.blog/2020/05/16/8514/

Some People

Some people feel helpless & anxious.
Some people are bored.
Some people are self-quarantined alone and are lonely.
Some people are realizing that After will be very different from Before.

Source: Some People

What makes us believe a false claim?

fullfact.org/media/uploads/who-believes-shares-misinformation.pdf

Boris Johnson drops word ‘onanism’ from speech after criticism

Diana Birkett, a London psychotherapist, said Johnson appeared to have an obsession with masturbation. “His tendency to slip into sexualised abusive language suggests a disturbing lack of maturity in one standing for the highest office.”

Source: Boris Johnson drops word ‘onanism’ from speech after criticism

Johnson thinking about his Johnson…

British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine

It’s chilling. From the Mail, The Times to the BBC and ITN, everyone is peddling Downing Street’s lies and smears. They’re turning their readers into dupes.

Source: British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine

Depressing!

Catholic School Bans Harry Potter Books Because They Contain ‘Real Curses And Spells’

Can you feel the stupid?

Source: Catholic School Bans Harry Potter Books Because They Contain ‘Real Curses And Spells’

I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be prime minister

If the Johnson family had stuck to showbusiness like the Osmonds, Marx Brothers or von Trapp family, the world would be a better place. Yet the Tories, in their terror, have elevated a cavorting charlatan to the steps of Downing Street, and they should expect to pay a full forfeit when voters get the message. If the price of Johnson proves to be Corbyn, blame will rest with the Conservative party, which is about to foist a tasteless joke upon the British people – who will not find it funny for long.

Max Hastings in The Guardian

Boris Johnson’s long list of broken promises to voters

Johnson has promised not to delay Brexit if he becomes prime minister. However, analysis of his record reveals a long list of previous broken pledges.
— Read on www.businessinsider.com/boris-johnson-broken-promises-london-mayor-conservative-party-leadership-contest-2019-6

Should I Respect Your Beliefs?

via Should I Respect Your Beliefs? | Courtney Heard

There is not a religion on earth I respect and there’s one simple reason: I value the truth. Centering your life and your core values around something for which there is no evidence is dangerous. Once you accept one idea on faith, you’ve set your standard of evidence extremely low. You can then be led to believe other ideas for which there exists no empirical, demonstrable evidence. As such, these beliefs make it easy to inspire murder, child abuse, science and medicine denial, wars, genocides, discrimination and the stripping of human rights. Stubborn belief in that which cannot be proven is the very last thing that deserves respect.

I reserve my respect for that which does deserve it. That which upholds the value of human life; that which values individual rights. I save my respect for people, for this planet, and all the creatures on it, including you, but I will not give it to your unfounded beliefs. The very fact that you feel the need to demand respect for your beliefs from strangers on the internet is perhaps a sign they are not worthy of respect at all.