Dr. Yves d’Udekem discusses his background, the history of pediatric cardiovascular surgery and his vision for the future.
Researchers at Children’s National Hospital found a new SARS-CoV-2 spike variant in a neonatal patient, according to a study that genetically sequenced the virus in 27 pediatric patients. The newborn presented with a viral load of 50,000 times more particles than the average patient, which led to identifying the N679S spike protein variant — the earliest known sample of this coronavirus lineage in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region.
While the paper is posted to the preprint server medRxiv and has not been peer-reviewed, it represents an early step towards establishing better surveillance of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new variant helps understand the process of viral adaptation, potentially informing treatment development and vaccine design for any viral variants in the future.
All genomes change and evolve. Additional viral variants are expected to emerge as more patients are infected. The data analysis recognized eight other cases in Washington, D.C., with the N679S variant, pointing toward a European origin due to the genetic similarity between of SARS-CoV-2 strains in the U.S. and United Kingdom.
“We need to sequence more cases to identify variants and stay ahead of the virus,” said Drew Michael, Ph.D., molecular geneticist at Children’s National and senior author of the study. “The United States sequences a tiny fraction of all cases, and because we are not sequencing enough, we are not aware of the variants in SARS-CoV-2 that may be spreading in our community.”
“Novel SARS-CoV-2 spike variant identified through viral genome sequencing of the pediatric Washington D.C. COVID-19 outbreak,” was published on the preprint server medRxiv. Additional authors include Jonathan LoTempio, Erik Billings, Kyah Draper, Christal Ralph, Mahdi Moshgriz, Nhat Duong, Jennifer Dien Bard, Xiaowu Gai, David Wessel, M.D., Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., Joseph M. Campos, Ph.D., Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D. and Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H.
You can read the full preprint on medRxiv.
Yves d’Udekem, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric cardiac surgeon recognized for expertise in the most challenging procedures for newborns and children with complex congenital heart disease, has joined Children’s National Hospital as chief of Cardiac Surgery and co-director of the Children’s National Heart Institute.
“Children’s National has the cases and expertise I was looking for,” he says. “Even better, when you visit it’s clear that the entire Heart Institute team is energetic about working together. They’re constantly seeking better ways to do this work and improve how we care for children and their families.”
Dr. d’Udekem comes to Children’s National from The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, an institution that has led the advancement of congenital heart disease care and research, performing more than 500 surgical procedures with cardiopulmonary bypass each year.
He has a broad spectrum of pediatric cardiac surgery expertise, with special emphasis in single ventricle congenital heart defects, when one lower chamber of the heart does not develop. One area of his research portfolio includes clinical research into long-term quality of life for people who had Fontan procedures — a critical surgical approach to adapt blood flow for people born with single ventricle heart disease. He has additional expertise in valve repair, artificial hearts and other cardiac assist devices.
“Sometimes it seems like I’ve been born and put on this earth for that single purpose — I have to bring life to patients with single ventricle hearts or assist devices,” he says. He describes his path to pediatric cardiac surgery as serendipity, “It’s more like pediatric cardiac surgery chose me.”
“It is an honor to welcome Yves d’Udekem to the Children’s National Heart Institute,” says David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer of Hospital and Specialty Services at Children’s National. “He is a surgeon, physician and leader of the highest caliber. I can say without hesitation that Yves’ leadership of our cardiac surgery team will change the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of children and adults with congenital heart disease.”
In preparation for Dr. d’Udekem’s arrival, the Children’s National Heart Institute and hospital leadership created a framework plan for success that will build on the legacy of excellence established by Richard Jonas, M.D. Dr. Jonas, a world leader in congenital heart surgery who has made significant clinical and academic advances in the field, will continue his award-winning laboratory-based research at Children’s National on neurodevelopmental outcomes for children with congenital heart disease.
Dr. d’Udekem is Belgian-born with Canadian and Australian citizenship. He received his early training in Belgium and Toronto. As an attending cardiac surgeon in Belgium, he operated on both adults and children with congenital heart disease. Dr. d’Udekem then worked with internationally recognized heart surgeon Marc de Leval, M.D., FRCS, and others in London to train in congenital heart surgery at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. From there, he was recruited to The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, where he has been ever since.
Dr. d’Udekem has more than 350 research publications and has obtained more than $7 million in grant funding in the past five years for work to create the first research network of Australian children and adults who have undergone the Fontan procedure.
He started seeing patients at Children’s National in mid-September.
As the fall approaches, pediatric hospitals will start seeing children with seasonal influenza A and B. At the same time, COVID-19 will be co-circulating in communities with the flu and other respiratory viruses, making it more difficult to identify and prevent the novel coronavirus.
With little published data directly comparing the clinical features of children with COVID-19 to those with seasonal flu, researchers at Children’s National Hospital decided to conduct a retrospective cohort study of patients in the two groups. Their findings — published September 8 in JAMA Network Open — surprised them.
The study — detailed in the article “Comparison of Clinical Features of US Children With COVID-19 vs Seasonal Influenza A and B” — showed no statistically significant differences in the rates of hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit and mechanical ventilator use between the two groups.
The other unexpected finding was that more patients with COVID-19 than those with seasonal influenza reported fever, cough, diarrhea or vomiting, headache, body ache or chest pain at the time of diagnosis, says Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., M.Sc., M.B., the study’s principal investigator.
“I didn’t see this coming when I was thinking about doing the study,” says Dr. Song, director of Infection Control and Epidemiology at Children’s National since 2007 and a professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “It took several rounds of thinking and combing through the data to convince myself that this was the conclusion.”
Given that much remains unknown about COVID-19, the researchers’ discovery that children with the disease present with more symptoms at the time of diagnosis is a valuable one.
“It’s a good cue from a prevention and planning perspective,” says Dr. Song. “We always emphasize early recognition and early isolation with COVID. Having a clinical picture in mind will assist clinicians as they diagnose patients with symptoms of the coronavirus.”
The study included 315 children who were diagnosed with a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 between March 25, 2020, and May 15, 2020, and 1,402 children who were diagnosed with a laboratory-confirmed seasonal influenza between Oct. 1, 2019, and June 6, 2020, at Children’s National. Asymptomatic patients who tested positive for COVID-19 during pre-admission or pre-procedural screening were excluded from the study.
Of the 315 patients who tested positive for COVID-19, 52% were male, with a median age of 8.4 years. Of these patients, 54 (17.1 %) were hospitalized, including 18 (5.7%) who were admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and 10 (3.2%) who received mechanical ventilator treatment.
Among the 1,402 patients who tested positive for influenza A or B, 52% were male, with a median age of 3.9 years, and 291 (21.2%) were hospitalized, including 143 for influenza A and 148 for influenza B. Ninety-eight patients (7.0%) were admitted to the ICU, and 27 (1.9%) received mechanical ventilator support.
The study showed a slight difference in the age of children hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to those hospitalized with seasonal influenza. Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 had a median age of 9.7 years vs. those hospitalized with seasonal influenza who had a median age of 4.2 years.
In both groups, fever was the most often reported symptom at the time of diagnosis followed by cough. A greater proportion of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 than those hospitalized with seasonal influenza reported fever (76% vs. 55%), cough (48% vs. 31%), diarrhea or vomiting (26% vs. 12%), headache (11% vs. 3%), body ache/myalgia (22% vs. 7%), and chest pain (11% vs. 3%).
More patients hospitalized with COVID-19 than those with seasonal influenza reported sore throat or congestion (22% vs. 20%) and shortness of breath (30% vs. 20%), but the differences were not statistically significant.
During the study period, the researchers noticed an abrupt decline of influenza cases at Children’s National after local schools closed in mid-March and stay-at-home orders were implemented about two weeks later to combat the community spread of COVID-19. Dr. Song says the impact of school closures on the spread of COVID-19 among children is the next area of study for her research team.
“We want to assess the quantitative impact of school closures so we can determine at what point the cost of closing schools and staying at home outweighs the benefit of reducing transmission of COVID-19 and burdens on the health care system,” she says.
Dr. Song urges members of the community “first and foremost to stay calm and be strong. We’re learning new and valuable things about this virus each day, which in turn improves care. The collision of the flu and COVID-19 this fall could mean an increase in pediatric hospitalizations. That’s why it’s important to get your flu shot, because it can help take at least one respiratory virus out of circulation.”
In contrast to the prevailing view that the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 does not seriously impact children, a new study finds that children who contract the virus can become very ill—many of them critically so, according to physician researchers at Children’s National Hospital. Their results, published in the Journal of Pediatrics and among the first reports from a U.S. institution caring for children and young adults, shows differences in the characteristics of children who recovered at home, were hospitalized, or who required life support measures. These findings highlight the spectrum of illness in children, and could help doctors and parents better predict which pediatric patients are more likely to become severely ill as a consequence of the virus.
In late 2019, researchers identified a new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. As the disease spread around the world, the vast majority of reports suggested that elderly patients bear the vast majority of the disease burden and that children are at less risk for either infection or severe disease. However, study leader Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, states that she and her colleagues began noticing an influx of children coming to the hospital for evaluation of a range of symptoms starting in mid-March 2020, who were tested and determined to be infected with COVID-19. One quarter of these children required hospitalization or life support.
“It was very apparent to us within the first several weeks of the epidemic that this was a very different situation than our colleagues on the West Coast of the US had described as their experience just weeks before,” DeBiasi says. “Right away, we knew that it was important for us to not only care for these sick children, but to examine the factors causing severe disease, and warn others who provide medical care to children.”
To better understand this phenomenon, she and her colleagues examined the medical records of symptomatic children and young adults who sought treatment at Children’s National for COVID-19 between March 15 and April 30, 2020. Each of these 177 children tested positive using a rapid assay to detect SARS-CoV-2 performed at the hospital. The researchers gathered data on each patient, including demographic details such as age and sex; their symptoms; whether they had any underlying medical conditions; and whether these patients were non-hospitalized, hospitalized, or required critical care.
The results of their analysis show that there was about an even split of male and female patients who tested positive for COVID-19 at Children’s National during this time period. About 25% of these patients required hospitalization. Of those hospitalized, about 75% weren’t considered critically ill and about 25% required life support measures. These included supplemental oxygen delivered by intubation and mechanical ventilation, BiPAP, or high-flow nasal cannula – all treatments that support breathing – as well as other support measures such as dialysis, blood pressure support and medications to treat infection as well as inflammation.
Although patients who were hospitalized spanned the entire age range, more than half of them were either under a year old or more than 15 years old. The children and young adults over 15 years of age, Dr. DeBiasi explains, were more likely to require critical care.
About 39% of all COVID-19 patients had underlying medical conditions, including asthma, which has been highlighted as a risk factor for worse outcomes with this infection. However, DeBiasi says, although underlying conditions were more common as a whole in hospitalized patients – present in about two thirds of hospitalized and 80% of critically ill – asthma didn’t increase the risk of hospitalization or critical illness. On the other hand, children with underlying neurological conditions, such as cerebral palsy, microcephaly, or global developmental delay, as well as those with underlying cardiac, hematologic, or oncologic conditions were significantly more likely to require hospitalization.
In addition, although early reports of COVID-19 suggested that fever and respiratory symptoms are hallmarks of this infection, Dr. DeBiasi and her colleagues found that fewer than half of patients had both concurrently. Those with mild, upper respiratory symptoms, such as runny nose, congestion, and cough were less likely to end up hospitalized than those with more severe respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath. The frequency of other symptoms including diarrhea, chest pain and loss of sense of smell or taste was similar among hospitalized and non-hospitalized patients.
Dr. DeBiasi notes that although other East Coast hospitals are anecdotally reporting similar upticks in pediatric COVID-19 patients who become seriously ill, it’s currently unclear what factors might account for differences from the less frequent and milder pediatric illness on the West Coast. Some factors might include a higher East Coast population density, differences between the genetic, racial and ethnic makeup of the two populations, or differences between the viral strains circulating in both regions (an Asian strain on the West Coast, and a European strain on the East Coast).
Regardless, she says, the good news is that the more researchers learn about this viral illness, the better prepared parents, medical personnel and hospitals will be to deal with this ongoing threat.
Other researchers from Children’s National who participated in this study include Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., M.Sc., Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H., Michael Bell, M.D. , Karen Smith, M.D., Jay Pershad, M.D., Emily Ansusinha, Andrea Hahn, M.D., M.S., Rana Hamdy, M.D., M.P.H., MSCE, Nada Harik, M.D., Benjamin Hanisch, M.D., Barbara Jantausch, M.D., Adeline Koay, MBBS, MS.c., Robin Steinhorn, Kurt Newman, M.D. and David Wessel, M.D.