This past November, Pitzer College senior Benjamin Sievers ’22 took the train home to San Diego between finals to evaluate the evolving health risks from the newly identified and fast-moving Omicron variant. Sievers is part of a team at the J. Craig Venter Institute that has partnered with Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Infectious Disease to see how well someone’s antibodies hold up against Covid-19 variants. The result of their work was recently published by the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Anticipating the evolution of viral variants, Sievers and the research team developed a test called a neutralization assay to determine how well our antibodies block infection by SARS-CoV-2. Using these tests, they found that previous vaccination offered protection against the Delta variant. They made these discovers just as the first reports of Omicron were emerging from South Africa. The research team then pivoted to examine the new variant and found that people’s prior-infection or vaccine-induced antibodies helped block new infection with Omicron but to a lesser degree compared with earlier variants, like Delta.
“Specifically, we found that antibodies elicited by previous SARS-CoV-2 infection or mRNA vaccines had reduced neutralizing activity against the Beta and Omicron variants,” Sievers said. “Ultimately, our findings helped predict that vaccinated and previously infected individuals would experience breakthrough infections with the Omicron variant but that they would likely be able to control infection and avoid serious outcomes including death.
“Healthy immune systems are remarkably well-adapted to help us keep a step or two ahead of viral infections—even when the virus evolves,” Sievers said.
A biology major, Sievers is a research fellow in Assistant Professor Gene Tan’s infectious disease laboratory at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Sievers’ hometown of La Jolla, Calif. He has been working with Tan for over a year on various projects, ranging from developing lung organoids to helping create novel vaccine candidates.
For the research that was published by Science Translational Medicine, Stanford’s Department of Infectious Disease provided blood specimens, and Tan’s lab conducted the neutralization assays. The teams worked around the clock on the research.
“There was considerable urgency to understand global public health risks with the Omicron variant,” Sievers said. “Those were crazy days for me, performing intricate laboratory assays into the night and over the weekends during finals week.”
Sievers shared first authorship on two different published manuscripts reporting their findings in Science Translational Medicine: “Antibodies elicited by SARS-CoV-2 infection or mRNA vaccines have reduced neutralizing activity against Beta and Omicron pseudoviruses” and “Early non-neutralizing, afucosylated antibody responses are associated with COVID-19 severity.”
Since the publication of the Science Translation Medicine articles, Sievers has also had another co-authored article published, “Evaluation of feasibility and user acceptance of lateral-flow self-testing for viral illness in a residential treatment rehabilitation facility,” which appears in the Health and Justice Journal.
Although Sievers literally lost sleep over the research on COVID-19 variants, he says it was well worth it. “I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play my part in the much larger story.”