Just over two weeks ago, scientists working for the National Institutes of Health, of which Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton is a part, were given direction to “step down” on all operations not directly related to COVID-19 virus research.
“We were told to stop all laboratory operations that weren’t mission critical. We complied,” said RML Administrator Dr. Marshall Bloom. He said that scientists at the lab stopped all laboratory work not directly related to the new disease and put their projects into hibernation. If scientists had a critical on-going study, he said, they could apply for an exemption to complete that work.
Since that directive came down, according to Bloom, about fifty employees carry on the mission-critical work related to COVID-19. He said it involves a lot more people than the research scientists and their staff. It involves safety and bio-safety personnel, veterinary staff and animal care staff, as well as facility maintenance staff.
“For every scientist doing research, there are a lot of people making that research possible,” said Bloom. He said the work was being done on varying schedules and different shifts arranged to minimize the total number of people on campus at any given time.
Bloom said the strategies and tactics being employed by the researchers are likely to sound familiar to a lot of people because they are the same strategies and tactics that RML scientists have used in combating other serious virus infections that have made the news, like Ebola virus and Zika virus.
The lab has also been involved in the study of other coronaviruses. COVID-19 is a coronavirus, a large virus that has RNA in it rather than DNA, and it is not the first found to be able to infect people. RML scientists were already familiar with the MERS-CoV coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and the SARS-CoV type 1 coronavirus. Another name for COVID-19 is SARS-CoV 2. The similarity in name indicates its similarity to that virus which also caused a major outbreak around the world in the 2000s.
Bloom said there are many other coronaviruses out there and that about a quarter of all the common colds are caused by a coronavirus of some type. “They are respiratory viruses, but not anything serious or deadly like the COVID-19 virus,” said Bloom.
Bloom said the work on the SARS 1 virus and on the MERS virus has helped to inform the sorts of tests and strategies now being devised to use against this virus. He said that, based on their experience, investigators at RML became concerned very early on that this virus was going to turn out to be a big problem in the world. So, the initial footwork to plan research studies on what has now come to be called the COVID-19 outbreak was actually begun in early January.
“Because they were attentive to the international scene and paying attention to what was coming out of China, they were able to get a pretty good head start in planning projects even before there was a single case in the United States,” said Bloom.
According to Bloom, there are currently five different groups at work at the lab concentrating on different aspects of the virus infection.
One of the groups is working with mice, hamsters and monkeys to develop an animal model to try and mimic the infection as it is seen in people in an experimental animal’s system.
“Once an animal model has proven to be reliable, and reasonably reflects the disease in humans, that provides a terrific platform for testing vaccines and anti-viral medications,” said Bloom. In addition, those animal studies can be used to provide a feel for how long an individual infected will shed the virus and what bodily fluids the virus can be found in such as respiratory or gastrointestinal tract systems.
“Some of that work is already under review by journals and is posted on a pre-print server and has drawn a lot of attention because of the way these non-primate studies were done and the findings that were made,” he said.
A second group is developing and testing a variety of experimental vaccines or drug treatments to prevent or treat the disease. Bloom said the vaccines and drugs were mostly developed somewhere else, “but our collaborators are relying on the expertise of our scientists to evaluate the effectiveness of the vaccines and the treatments.” In addition, several different vaccines are under development here. There are vaccines currently headed into human trials, he said, but those results are not in yet and may not be as promising as hoped. Vaccines work differently and one may work better on this kind of disease than others.
“The animal studies being done here are going to be critical in determining the potential response in humans and determining the proper parameters for use of the drug,” said Bloom, no matter which vaccine ends up being the best preventative or the best treatment.
A third set of projects involves researching how long the virus can maintain its infectivity in the air and on surfaces and in different environmental conditions.
Bloom said we know it can be transmissible in air, not just through coughing but by breathing. We know it can remain viable on surfaces like metals, wood, cardboard and plastic. We are looking into the details about how long on metal, how long on wood, how long in the air. Plus, how long it can survive in feces or in other bodily fluids.
This work will inform not only the transmission patterns of the virus but also will provide hospitals, clinics and other types of workplaces with the information they need, like, how long, if we have an infected person in this room, is that virus going to hang around and be infectious?
A corollary to this work, Bloom said, is finding the best way to disinfect that workplace and determining what’s the best disinfectant and what’s the best way to use it.
A fourth group is looking at tissue samples from infected animals to try and figure out where the virus is actually going once it gets into the lungs and how it is damaging the tissue so as to lead to such respiratory distress that we are seeing in a lot of severely ill patients.
The last set of studies, he said, is looking at what set of host genes are involved in controlling the virus infection.
“The expectation is going to be that some species are going to be extremely susceptible to the infection and other species are going to be resistant to it,” said Bloom. He said that pattern is likely to be determined not only by the immune responses of the animals but by a variety of other cellular systems called “restriction factors,” that is, factors that restrict the virus’ ability to grow in a particular host.
“If those factors can be identified, it then becomes possible using some sort of fancy modelling and analysis to predict or identify compounds that can either enhance a protective response or reduce a deleterious response,” said Bloom.