Although recent data has shown the coronavirus poses a greater risk to young people than previously understood, the ensuing COVID-19 disease is clearly far more dangerous for older people than it is for the young.
If we want to lower the COVID-19 fatality rate, we must also make fortifying our most vulnerable hosts a central part of our approach.
While our older adults have accrued tremendous knowledge, wisdom, and perspective over the years, their bodies have over time become less able to fight off viruses and other insults. The shorthand name for this increased susceptibility is aging.
We may have different names for the diseases which disproportionately kill us -- cancer, heart disease, and dementia among them – but what is really killing us is age. The older we are, the greater the chance we'll die from one or another of these afflictions. Eliminate any one completely - including cancer - and we won't on average live that much longer. But if we slow aging on a cellular level, we can counter all of these diseases at once, including COVID-19.
Every army needs both offensive and defensive capabilities. In our war against COVID-19, our offense strategy is to fight the virus directly. But strengthening our defense requires making us all more resistant to its danger. That's why everyone needs to be eating well, exercising, and remaining socially connected. But if we want to lower the COVID-19 fatality rate, we must also make fortifying our most vulnerable hosts a central part of our approach. That's where our new fight against this disease and the emerging science of aging intersect.
Once the domain of charlatans and delusionists, the millennia-old fantasy of extending our healthy lifespans has over the past century become real. But while the big jump in longevity around the world over the past hundred years or so is mostly attributable to advances in sanitation, nutrition, basic healthcare, and worker safety, advances over the next hundred will come from our increasing ability to hack the biology of aging itself.
A few decades ago, scientists began recognizing that some laboratory animals on calorie-restricted diets tended to live healthier, longer lives. Through careful experiments derived from these types of insights, scientists began identifying specific genetic, epigenetic, and metabolic pathways that influence how we age. A range of studies have recently suggested that systemic knobs might metaphorically be turned to slow the cellular aging process, making us better able to fight off diseases and viral attacks.
Among the most promising of these systemic interventions is a drug called metformin, which targets many of the hallmarks of aging and extends health span and lifespan in animals. Metformin has been around since the Middle Ages and has been used in Europe for over 60 years to treat diabetes. This five-cent pill became the most prescribed drug in the world after being approved by the FDA in 1994.
With so many people taking it, ever larger studies began suggesting metformin's positive potential effects preventing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and dementia. In fact, elderly people on metformin for their diabetes have around a 20 percent lower mortality than age-matched subjects without diabetes. Results like these led scientists to hypothesize that metformin wasn't just impacting a few individual diseases but instead having a systemic impact on entire organisms.
Another class of drug that seems to slow the systemic process of aging in animal models and very preliminary human trials inhibits a nutrient-sensing cellular protein called mTOR. A new category of drugs called rapalogues has been shown to extend healthspan and lifespan in every type of non-human animal so far tested. Two recent human studies indicated that rapalogues increased resistance to the flu and decreased the severity of respiratory tract infections in older adults.
If COVID-19 is primarily a severe disease of aging, then countering aging should logically go a long way in countering the disease.
These promising early indications have inspired a recently launched long-term study exploring how metformin and rapalogues might delay the onset of multiple, age-related diseases and slow the biological process of aging in humans. Under normal circumstances, studies like this seeking to crack the biological code of aging would continue to proceed slowly and carefully over years, moving from animal experiments to cautious series of human trials. But with deaths rising by the day, particularly of older people, these are not times for half measures. Wartimes have always demanded new ways of doing important things at warp speeds.
If COVID-19 is primarily a severe disease of aging, then countering aging should logically go a long way in countering the disease. We need to find out. Fast.
Although it would be a mistake for older people to just begin taking drugs like these without any indication, pushing to massively speed up our process for assessing whether these types of interventions can help protect older people is suddenly critical.
To do this, we need U.S. government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to step up. BARDA currently only funds COVID-19 clinical trials of drugs that can be dosed once and provide 60 days of protection. Metformin and rapalogues are not considered for BARDA funding because they are dosed once daily. This makes no sense because a drug that provides 60 days of protection from the coronavirus after a single dose does not yet exist, while metformin and rapalogues have already passed extensive safety tests. Instead, BARDA should consider speeding up trials with currently available drugs that could help at least some of the elderly populations at risk.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control are ramping up their approval processes and even then needs to prioritize efforts, they too must find a better balance between appropriate regulatory caution and the dire necessities of our current moment. Drugs like metformin and rapalogues that have shown preliminary efficacy ought to be fast-tracked for careful consideration.
One day we will develop a COVID-19 vaccine to help everyone. But that could be at least a year from now, if not more. Until we get there and even after we do, speeding up our process of fortifying our older populations mush be a central component of our wartime strategy.
And when the war is won and life goes back to a more normal state, we'll get the added side benefit of a few more months and ultimately years with our parents and grandparents.
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.