3 things you should know about COVID-19

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Meet Renée-Claude Goulet, Jesse Rogerson, and Michelle Campbell Mekarski.

They are Ingenium’s science advisors, providing expert scientific advice on key subjects relating to our three museums — the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

In this colourful monthly blog series, Ingenium’s science advisors offer up three quirky nuggets related to their areas of expertise. For the April edition, our science advisors focused on COVID-19: how plant biotechnology may be key to finding a vaccine, precautions being taken by astronauts headed to the International Space Station (ISS), and useful tips for finding reliable information online.

Plant biotechnology and the search for a COVID-19 vaccine

In the race to develop a vaccine to combat COVID-19, a Québec-based company, Medicago, has a novel approach to the problem — genetically engineer plants to produce it. This innovation could make us more nimble in our response to pandemics.

Let’s look at how vaccines are currently made. To date, one common way to make vaccines involves injecting a fertilized chicken egg with a virus and incubating it for two days. After using the egg to make copies of itself, the virus is harvested, purified, and deactivated, giving us a vaccine. In fact, that's how the majority of the annual “flu shot” doses are made.

One of the drawbacks to this approach is that one egg yields about one dose, so you need a LOT of fresh, medical-grade, fertilized eggs to vaccinate a population. According to the Egg Farmers of Canada, 13,335,840 dozen of them (or ~160 million eggs, or 438,438 hens' work), go to vaccine production in Canada each year. Since the number of farms producing these eggs is limited, this supply is difficult to ramp up in times of emergency.

Another drawback to the egg method is the possibility of the virus mutating while incubating, making the vaccine less effective. In addition, it’s difficult to adapt the vaccine once it’s in production — in the event the virus in the population changes (mutates). Finally, it is time consuming and costly. So does plant biotechnology provide us with a better way?

When using plants to make vaccines, the "live" virus is not needed, only its genetic code. The process is relatively simple:

  • create a piece of DNA that holds instructions for protein found in the virus
  • insert this piece of DNA into a specific bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens)
  • infect the plant with the bacterium
  • bacterium transfers DNA to the plant
  • plant tissues start producing particles in the shape of the virus, but without its genetic information
  • after 11 days, harvest the plants, extract and purify the product

In our body, this plant-produced virus lookalike will cause our immune system to react as though the virus was present.

Using this method, Medicago claims having a vaccine candidate a mere 20 days after receiving the virus’s genetic code (compared to the typical four to six months required for cell-based methods, like the egg). This is a method of rapid production, and is scalable; greenhouses can be built as needed to accommodate larger production, in times when we need vaccines rapidly. This is nearly impossible when working with the actual virus. Given the promising outcomes of this biotechnology, the Government of Canada is now officially working with Medicago to accelerate development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Could plant biotechnology be the next frontier of vaccines?

By Renée-Claude Goulet

The three astronauts set to launch on April 9 in space suits, in front of their launch vehicle a Soyuz spacecraft

Cassidy, Ivanishin, and Vagner are preparing for their launch to the ISS on April 9, which includes a mandatory quarantine 14 days prior to lift-off.

Protecting the ISS from COVID-19

Over the past few months, we’ve seen the widespread impact of the COVID-19 virus on Earth. What you may not know is that precautions are also being taken to ensure the virus doesn’t spread to astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Currently, the three astronauts aboard the ISS — Andrew Morgan, Oleg Skripochka, and Jessica Meir — are safe from the spread of the virus. They launched to the ISS aboard MS-15, a Soyuz spacecraft, in September 2019 — which is well before COVID-19 appeared in early January 2020.

However, astronauts Chris Cassidy, Anatoly Ivanishin, and Ivan Vagner are scheduled to launch to join their colleagues on April 9, 2020. These three astronauts have the potential to carry COVID-19 to the ISS and infect the current crew.

While it is bad for anyone to get the virus, for astronauts aboard the ISS it is an especially bad scenario. First of all, monitoring of astronauts before and after spaceflight has shown the immune system’s ability to fight off viruses is compromised as a result of long-duration missions (six to 12 months). Effectively, astronauts on long-missions are immunocompromised, which puts the astronauts in potentially more danger than a person with a more robust immune system.

Secondly, the ISS is remote! While there is always a medical officer on board, and often a medical doctor, it is still a remote location many hours away from hospital facilities. If an astronaut found themselves in a medical emergency, it wouldn’t be easy to treat it.

Thus it’s incredibly important for the ISS to maintain its environment, and prevent unwanted pathogens from making it there, from the common cold to the current outbreak of COVID-19.

So how does the ISS consortium (NASA, ROSCOSMOS, Canada, ESA, and JAXA) ensure the ISS remains pathogen free and safe? They quarantine! Stretching well back into our spaceflight history, humans have always quarantined in advance of space flight. NASA policy is a 14-day quarantine for all crews prior to their launch. This also happens to be the amount of time the World Health Organization recommends a person quarantine themselves if they show symptoms of COVID-19. This is because the incubation period for COVID-19 is about 5 days, but could be as long as 11.5 days.

The three astronauts preparing for their launch on April 9 will be watched very closely over the next few days. As long as they don’t show symptoms, the launch will likely move forward as planned.

By Jesse Rogerson

A person holds their cell phone which displays several social media applications
The internet is full of information, and not all of it is reliable. How can you tell what’s true, false, or in between?

Test your coronavirus misinformation radar: Tips for finding reliable information online

Even during normal everyday life, it can be hard to tell what you can believe on the internet. Right now, during a global pandemic, people are more desperate than ever for information that they can trust. Yet, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, there is a lot of misleading and incorrect coronavirus information circulating.

Have you ever seen a photo that seemed too unbelievable? Headlines that were totally outrageous? The internet is full of information, and not all of it is reliable. Some of it is unintentional misinformation: information shared without realizing it’s wrong. Worse is disinformation: false information that has been deliberately created or shared in order to mislead others.

So how can you tell what information is true, false, or something in between? Here are a few tips to help you slow down and think about the information you consume and share:

     1. Did it make you say “WHOA! WHAT?!”

This first tip is almost ridiculously simple. Disinformation is usually buried in stories that grab your emotions (especially sympathy and anger). A strong emotional response should be your first indication to take a closer look.

     2. Who shared it?

Check out the poster’s profile. If their profile is very new, has a stock image photograph (check using Google reverse image search), is posting 24 hours a day, or if they seem ‘robot-like’ instead of having genuine human posts, then it’s likely they are a scammer or a machine.

If the post comes from the real account of a real person – give them a web search. Does the person have a strong bias from political or religious affiliations? Is this person an expert in their field? Or, is the post supposed to be satire?

     3. What’s the context of the ORIGINAL piece of content?

Information on the internet spreads a bit like a game of telephone: every time somebody reposts or rewrites, there’s a chance it will get altered or lost. If it’s something shared on social media, go back to the original post. Look at the date — is this story still relevant?

Then, check out the cited sources (press release, news outlet, etc.) and establish their credibility. If the piece was posted without context, try searching the title, quote, or main image online. If the story is truly headline-worthy, then other sources have probably reported on it. Check the information against these other sources to make sure important details are not being left out.

False information is out there. But luckily, most of it can be dismissed using a search engine. So the next time a story grabs your attention, stop and figure out which button you should be clicking: “share” or “report."

By Michelle Campbell Mekarski

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Jesse Rogerson, PhD

Jesse is a passionate scientist, educator, and science communicator. As an assistant professor at York University in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, he teaches three classes: History of Astronomy, Introduction to Astronomy, and Exploring the Solar System. He frequently collaborates with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and lends his expert voice to the Ingenium Channel. Jesse is an astrophysicist, and his research explores how super massive black holes evolve through time. Whether in the classroom, through social media, or on TV, he encourages conversations about how science and society intersect, and why science is relevant in our daily lives.

Profile picture for user Renée-Claude Goulet
Renée-Claude Goulet

Renée-Claude is the Science Advisor at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, and an Ontario Certified Teacher. Through her background in biology, education and many years of experience creating and delivering programs and exhibits at the museum, she has developed an expertise in communicating key issues related to the science and innovation behind production of food, fibre and fuel, to a wide range of audiences.

Profile picture for user Michelle Campbell Mekarski
Michelle Campbell Mekarski, PhD

As the Science Advisor at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Michelle’s goal is to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public — specializing in making science and technology engaging, accessible, and fun. Michelle earned a PhD in evolutionary biology and paleontology and has many years of experience developing and delivering science outreach activities. When away from her job at the museum, she can be found teaching at the University of Ottawa or Carleton University, digging for fossils, or relaxing by the water.