5,000-year-old bacteria is the oldest strain of plague ever seen. Scientists found it in the ancient bones of a Stone Age man.

black plague y. pestis cell reports
The partial skull of a man buried in Riņņukalns, Latvia, who died of the plague around 5,000 years ago.

  • A strain of bacteria that causes the plague infected a hunter-gatherer 5,000 years ago.
  • It’s the oldest strain of plague ever found, a new study says.
  • The ancient strain evolved for four more millennia before causing the Black Death, or bubonic plague.
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Five thousand years ago, a rodent bit a Stone Age hunter-gatherer. The creature carried a strain of pernicious bacteria called Yersinia pestis – the pathogen that caused the Black Death, or bubonic plague in the 1300s.

The bacteria likely killed the Stone Age man, who died in his 20s, according to a study published Tuesday. It’s the oldest strain of plague known to science so far.

The strain’s genome closely resembles the version of plague that wrecked medieval Europe more than 4,000 years later, killing up to half the region’s population over the course of seven years. But it’s missing a few key genes – notably, traits that helped it spread.

Unlike its microbial descendants, the plague that sickened the ancient hunter was a slow-moving disease and not very transmissible, according to Ben Krause-Kyora, a professor of ancient DNA analysis at Kiel University in Germany.

“It lacked the genes that enabled transmission by flea,” Krause-Kyora, who co-authored the new study, told Insider. During the Black Death, bites from fleas and lice were the key source of infections.

So in the millennia between the hunter-gatherer’s demise and the Black Death, Y. pestis bacteria mutated in a way that gave it the ability to jump between species via fleas.

“The change was a major driving force of a fast and widespread plague,” Krause-Kyora said.

Bacteria in the bloodstream

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Yersinia pestis bacteria as seen under a microscope. This bacteria is the cause of the Bubonic plague.

The Stone Age hunter-gatherer died in a region that’s now Latvia. Near his bones, anthropologists also excavated the remains of another man, a teenage girl, and a newborn, but none had been infected.

Krause-Kyora’s group hadn’t gone looking for ancient plague victims – rather, they wanted to see if the four buried people were related. But before completing their planned genetic analysis, the team screened ancient DNA extracted from the bones and teeth for traces of pathogens. That’s how they found the bacteria.

black plague y. pestis cell reports
The Riņņukalns site on the banks of the Salaca River in Latvia, where 5,000-year-old bones were found.

The researchers then compared the bacteria’s genome to other ancient plague strains. A previous study described other strains that are roughly 5,000 years old, but Krause-Kyora said this particular one is a couple hundred years older. So his team concluded it was the earliest-known version of Y. pestis.

The hunter-gatherer’s DNA also showed that he had a large quantity of bacteria in his body, which suggests that he died from it. His grave site indicated that other members of his group meticulously buried him, according to the study.

“It’s hard to tell if he died quickly,” Krause-Kyora said, adding, “from the number of bacteria present, it seems he survived a higher dose and lived longer or in a more chronic way with it.”

black plague y. pestis cell reports
The jawbone of a Stone Age hunter-gatherer buried in Riņņukalns, Latvia, around 5,000 years ago.

The plague can take three forms. Bubonic is the type that ravaged Europe and left victims with swollen, painful lymph nodes. Septicemic refers to infections in which the bacteria enters the bloodstream and the patient’s skin turns black and dies. Pneumonic plague, meanwhile, can cause respiratory failure.

Krause-Kyora thinks the ancient hunter had septicemic plague, which could explain why no other members of his small group got the disease.

“They would’ve had to have direct contact with his blood,” he said – or another infected rodent would have had to bite them.

An evolving plague

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A painting titled “Carting the Dead,” by French artist Jean-Pierre Moynet, depicts a cart of bodies from people who died from the Black Plague in the 1300s.

The plague is mostly zoonotic, meaning it hops from animal hosts to humans.

Krause-Kyora said that the hunter-gatherer’s case can show epidemiologists how zoonotic pathogens – like Ebola, swine flu, and (most likely) the new coronavirus – change over time.

“We really have to think about how evolution of zoonotic events could take thousands of years,” he said.

black plague y. pestis cell reports
A lab specializing in ancient DNA at Kiel University.

During the era when the Stone Age man lived, the plague didn’t cause widespread outbreaks. Y. pestis would pop up here and there in groups of hunter-gatherers, farmers, and nomads across Eurasia, but there was never a Black Death-level event.

“The finding confirms the early strains are associated with sporadic outbreaks that didn’t spread far,” Krause-Kyora said.

What changed by medieval times, he thinks, is that people started to live in bigger communities and in closer proximity. That shift might have influenced the evolution that led the plague to live in fleas – which bite people more easily.

“It’s the bacteria adapting to population density,” Krause-Kyora said.

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Fauci: Vaccinated people shouldn’t dine indoors or go to the theater quite yet

fauci vaccine covid
Dr. Anthony Fauci directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

  • Fauci says even if you’re fully vaccinated, indoor dining and theater-going should be off-limits.
  • The number of coronavirus cases in the US remains high.
  • As more people get vaccinated and cases drop, it may become safe to do things indoors with crowds again.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US’ leading infectious disease expert, is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but you won’t likely find him dining in at any restaurants or catching a movie in theaters just yet.

“There are things, even if you’re vaccinated, that you’re not going to be able to do in society,” Fauci said on Monday during a White House COVID-19 press briefing. “For example, indoor dining, theaters, places where people congregate. That’s because of the safety of society.”

Fauci’s comments came on the same day the US passed the grim milestone of 500,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths. He stressed that while being vaccinated dramatically increases your “own personal safety,” it’s not a free pass to go out and party like it’s 2019, at least not yet.

“Because the burden of virus in society will be very high – which it is right now,” he said.

Vaccines don’t necessarily prevent the spread of COVID-19

Though the number of new coronavirus cases in the US has fallen dramatically in recent weeks, the virus is still spreading, with nearly 450,000 COVID-19 cases nationwide documented in the past week. 

“We are still at an unacceptably high baseline level,” Fauci said on Monday during the briefing. 

Though vaccines can help prevent people from contracting severe cases of COVID-19, the jabs may not stop them from getting sick altogether. It’s still unclear whether vaccinated people can be disease carriers, which means they might spread illnesses to unvaccinated people in a community where vaccination is not near universal yet, prolonging the pandemic. 

“We hope that when the data comes in, it’s going to show that the virus level is quite low and you’re not transmitting it,” but, Fauci cautioned, “we don’t know that now. And for that reason, we want to make sure that people continue to wear masks despite the fact that they’re vaccinated.”

Early signs are looking promising that vaccinated people may not spread the virus well, but it’s still too soon to say for sure. 

Fauci has suggested waiting until the fall to re-open movie theaters 

fauci vaccine
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, prepares to receive his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health on December 22, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland.

Fauci’s remarks came on the same day that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced movie theaters in his state will reopen in early March. Indoor weddings and catered events of up to 150 people will also be allowed to resume in New York mid-March.

Fauci has suggested before that a better strategy would be to reopen theaters in the fall, when a more “substantial portion” of the US has been vaccinated. 

In the meantime, there’s still the possibility for safe, distanced (and masked) outdoor sports and events, like Fauci’s favorite, baseball.

“I would hope that by the time we get into May, June, July, that we will have enough people vaccinated in the country that the level of infection would be low enough – maybe not yet total herd immunity – but low enough to say that we can go to a game, you know: wear a mask, but be seated – not sitting right next to each other,” Fauci previously said during an online Q&A with JAMA.

COVID-19 vaccines are already giving relief to millions of people across the country, on an individual level, from the prospect of severe disease and death. 

“People are interested in taking the [COVID-19] vaccine in large numbers for the same reason people are interested in taking the vaccines for MMR and for the flu,” Andy Slavitt, the White House Senior Advisor for COVID-19 response, said at the briefing with Fauci. 

“Because they want to live. They don’t want it to be sick, and they don’t want to die.”

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Guinea declares first Ebola outbreak since 2016, after confirming 7 new cases linked to a funeral

ebola sierra leone west africa outbreak 2014 protective gear healthcare worker
Health workers put on protective gear before entering an Ebola quarantine zone at a Red Cross facility in the town of Koidu, in Eastern Sierra Leone, December 19, 2014.

  • Guinea declared an outbreak of Ebola on Sunday, the country’s first reports of the virus since 2016.
  • Three people have died, among seven confirmed cases of Ebola linked to a nurse’s funeral.
  • The Guinean health ministry says it has isolated the survivors and begun contact tracing. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Guinea has declared an Ebola outbreak for the first time since 2016, when a two-year outbreak in West Africa finally ended after killing more than 11,000 people.

The new outbreak, in the town of Gouécké, has already killed three – two women and a man. They were among seven people who attended a nurse’s funeral on February 1 and later came down with diarrhea, vomiting, and bleeding. All seven cases have now been confirmed as Ebola virus.

The four people who are still alive have been isolated and contact tracing has begun, Guinea’s health ministry, Agence Nationale de Sécurité Sanitaire (ANSS), said in a Facebook post on Sunday.

Ebola can cause fever, aches, and fatigue before progressing to “wet” symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and hemorrhaging. On average, its fatality rate is about 50%. 

The virus spreads through the bodily fluids of a sick or recently deceased person. Certain body fluids, like semen, can still transmit the virus after an infected person has recovered from their illness, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infected animals, like bats or primates, can transmit the virus to humans and spark new outbreaks.

“The resurgence of Ebola is very concerning for what it could do for the people, the economy, the health infrastructure,” Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an assistant professor of medicine for infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, told The Associated Press.

“We’re still understanding the repercussions of the (last) outbreak on the population,” she added.

Kuppalli was the medical director of an Ebola-treatment unit in Sierra Leone during the 2014-2016 outbreak, which began in Guinea then spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. More than 28,000 people contracted the virus during those years, according to the CDC.

This is West Africa’s first outbreak since then. The Guinean government says it is rushing to quash the resurgence, build a new Ebola treatment center, and accelerate distribution of the Ebola vaccine. 

health workers walk inside a new graveyard for Ebola victims, on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia. Despite the drop in reported Ebola cases, Dr. Bruce Aylward, leading WHO’s Ebola response, declared Friday April 10, 2015, that it’s too early for World Health Organization to downgrade the global emergency status of the biggest-ever Ebola outbreak in Africa.
Health workers walk inside a new graveyard for Ebola victims, on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, March 11, 2015.

“The government reassures the people that all measures are being taken to curb this epidemic as quickly as possible,” the ANSS said in its Facebook post.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, said on Twitter that she was “very concerned” by the new outbreak and that the WHO was also “ramping up readiness & response efforts.”

Since 2016, new Ebola outbreaks have only appeared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including one that was particularly deadly from the summer of 2018 to the summer of 2020. More than 2,000 people died during that resurgence.

The Congo reported another outbreak of the virus last week. It seems to be unrelated to Guinea’s new cases.

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Variants are threatening our vaccine progress

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We on the healthcare desk are just brimming with pride this week after learning that our very own Megan Hernbroth won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter! Her award was for her excellent reporting on the downfall of Zume Pizza, a pizza-robot company backed by SoftBank.

The next time you chat with Megan, be sure to say congratulations! 

Even better? Come join her in a discussion next week with top VCs about the future of healthcare. It’s on February 10 at 3 p.m. ET/12 p.m. PT – Sign up to attend here. 

Are you new to this newsletter? Sign up here for daily dispatches from Insider’s healthcare team.

Texas Vaccine
Nurse Roy Christian receives the Covid-19 vaccine at John Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB Health) in Galveston, Texas on December 15, 2020.

Variants threaten our vaccine progress

In the span of just a few weeks, we’ve gotten definitive data on three more coronavirus vaccines, showing that they work. That brings the tally of effective shots to at least half a dozen.

The latest one is Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V. It’s 91.6% effective at preventing COVID-19, according to data published Tuesday.

Andrew Dunn spoke with the leader of Russia’s program, who said the shot won’t be available in the US or UK any time soon.

And J&J filed its vaccine data for an emergency use authorization on Thursday. We should get a more complete picture of the vaccine in the coming weeks, before an outside panel of experts publicly scrutinize the data later this month.

J&J’s results-the one-dose vaccine is 66% effective at preventing COVID-19-are prompting a change in tone in the conversation around vaccines. Because the vaccine is still very good at preventing more serious cases of COVID-19, as well as deaths and hospitalizations, US health experts have started to emphasize that those are good reasons to get the shot, we’ve noticed. 

Plus – early results from vaccine trials are still coming in. Medicago laid out for Andrew its plan to test a plant-based COVID-19 vaccine in 30,000 people after encouraging early results. That trial is slated to start this month.

In the meantime, the initial rollout of vaccines carries on in the US. The federal government is opening up more access to the shots at retail pharmacies. Shelby Livingston reports that CVS Health and Walgreens stand to make more than $650 million apiece from the rollout

Read the full story here>>

There’s a major elephant in the room when it comes to talking about the progress we’re making with vaccines: variants. Increasingly, vaccine developers are preparing upgrades to COVID-19 shots to better fend off emerging coronavirus variants. 

CureVac and GlaxoSmithKline, for instance, said they’re making ‘next-generation’ vaccines that they say can tackle multiple COVID-19 variants at once, Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce reports. 

AstraZeneca, working with Oxford University, says it’s developing a COVID-19 vaccine to target variants that could be ready by the fall.

Regulatory bodies are bracing for the need for coronavirus vaccine upgrades.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration said it wants to make it quicker for vaccine developers to upgrade their shots to respond to virus variants. It’d be similar to how we get annual flu vaccine updates to counter new flu strains.  

Andrew has a comprehensive read on how vaccine developers are thinking through tweaks to existing COVID-19 shots. 

Read the full story here>>

Top vaccine developers are upgrading COVID-19 shots as mutations threaten our progress in curbing the pandemic

Coronavirus vaccine
Pharmacies are finding themselves with leftover coronavirus vaccines, meaning some people can score a shot early with the right planning.

The pandemic is changing how biotech VCs are investing

One constant refrain I’ve heard over the past year is how much the pandemic has reinforced where people were expecting the healthcare industry to head. (More care will move online and to patients’ homes, especially).

But in some ways, the pandemic has led investors to reevaluate how they invest in a particular space. 

For instance, ARCH Venture Partners cofounder Bob Nelsen told Allison DeAngelis about how the biotech firm – known for backing companies like Juno and Grail – is taking a new approach to mental health investments.

VCs, too, are looking at companies tackling infectious diseases in a new light. 

Patricia Kelly Yeo pinpointed 6 biotechs that are gearing up to tackle future pandemics (while, of course, working on ways to confront the current pandemic). 

Read the full story here>>

VCs have finally started paying attention to infectious diseases. Meet 6 up-and-coming biotechs tackling the pandemic pathogens of today and tomorrow.

DNA Testing 23andMe

The highs and lows of going public

It was a busy week for newly public healthcare companies, and a couple that are looking to join them.

It’s this roller coaster that 23andMe has to look forward to, after saying it plans go public via SPAC IPO.

The consumer genetics market itself, is a turbulent one that in 2019 and early 2020 hit a lull

Megan and I spoke with 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki on Thursday to get a sense of what’s ahead for the company as it goes public. 

Read the full story here>>

We spoke with the CEO of 23andMe about the future of the consumer-genetics industry and why she wouldn’t have considered a SPAC deal 6 months ago

I’ll leave you with a few more dispatches from the week you won’t want to miss:

Tips on the news of the moment, or how to make the perfect macaron on the first try? Fill me in at lramsey@businessinsider.com. You can reach the whole healthcare team at healthcare@businessinsider.com

– Lydia

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The COVID-19 vaccine has to stay ice-cold, so it’s being shipped in retrofitted tuna freezers

thermo king freezer covid-19 vaccine
Thermo King’s freezers, which are typically used to ship fresh tuna to Japan, will keep COVID-19 vaccine doses at freezing-cold temperatures as they travel overseas.

  • Industrial freezers first created to ship perishable foods like fresh tuna to Japan have been retrofitted to ship the newly-approved Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The doses can be transported in freezers like those from Thermo King, which have been proven to keep supermarket- and restaurant-grade tuna at -76 degrees Fahrenheit as it travels overseas, CNN reported.
  • The vaccine has to stay ice-cold to remain effective, since it uses a new kind of immunization technology called mRNA, or messenger RNA.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Thermo King, an industrial refrigeration company that’s created shippable freezers for sending temperature-sensitive fresh tuna fish to Japan, has found a new use for its food-safety technology: COVID-19 vaccine shipments.

On Friday, the FDA approved the first-ever COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer, setting into motion the complex process of shipping the doses, which must be transported on dry ice at -94 degrees Fahrenheit to remain effective, Business Insider previously reported.

That’s where Thermo King’s freezers, which have been proven to keep supermarket- and restaurant-grade tuna at -76 degrees Fahrenheit as it travels overseas, come into play, CNN previously reported.

The Ireland-based company tweaked its freezer design to accommodate the impending vaccine and ramped up production months ago in China, Francesco Incalza, the president of Thermo King Europe, Middle East, and Africa, told CNN Business.

Each of the mammoth freezers is 20 feet long, holds 300,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and can be shipped on boats, planes, and trucks for both national and international distribution.

On Monday, all US states are slated to receive their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which will first be given to frontline healthcare workers, essential workers, people over 65, and those with preexisting conditions who are more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infections. Patients need two doses of the vaccine, given three weeks apart, to be as effective as possible.

COVID-19 vaccines must stay ice-cold to remain effective

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is the first to use messenger RNA or mRNA, genetic material that tells cells how to make proteins, to prevent people from becoming infected with the coronavirus.

Other vaccines used today, like the flu vaccine, rely on dead or weakened versions of the actual virus, which tell a patient’s body to produce antibodies to fight the invading virus. But the potential severity of COVID-19 led scientists to create a new immunization method, one that’s been studied and developed over the past decade.

Rather than use weakened or dead coronavirus cells, the Pfizer vaccine contains coronavirus mRNA. When injected, the mRNA tells the body to create the spiky coronavirus proteins that attach to cells and help the virus invade them. In response, the body’s immune system sends antibodies to fight the coronavirus proteins and protect the body from future attacks.

Therma King anticipates its overhauled tuna freezers will become increasingly in-demand due to mRNA vaccines like Pfizer’s, gene therapies, and other medicines that need ultra-icy temperatures.

“More and more products will need to be transported at these ultra-low temperatures, so it is opening a new market for this kind of equipment,” Incalza told CNN Business.

Moderna’s vaccine, which the FDA is set to review Thursday, also requires cold temperatures during transit, Insider previously reported. Though it doesn’t need to be freezing, the Moderna vaccine should be stored in a fridge for up to a month.

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