As researchers around the world attempt to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, University of New Mexico's Health Sciences Center (HSC) researchers are among their ranks.
Dr. Steven Bradfute, an assistant professor in the Center for Global Health and Department of Internal Medicine at HSC, confirmed Thursday, March 12 that UNM researchers have received samples of the coronavirus and are ready to test it.
Bradfute and his team are contributing to research efforts to try to find a vaccine for COVID-19 amid an increase in presumptive positive cases in New Mexico. As of March 17, the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) identified 23 presumptive positive cases of the novel coronavirus in the state.
"Currently, we have grown up the virus, and we absolutely have a stock of it," Bradfute told the Daily Lobo. "And, we're going to start using it ... for some drug screening to try to find compounds that might block infection."
In addition to testing drugs and therapeutics, Bradfute said his lab is also looking to gain a better understanding of the basic biology of the virus.
The lab will be looking at "what happens to cells when they get infected, what proteins the virus need(s) to replicate and things like that," according to Bradfute.
He added the coronavirus project is unfunded, and the scope of the tests will depend in part on what national and international collaborators are interested in pursuing.
According to Bradfute, the virus was made available through BEI Resources, a federal government-funded repository.
"They make (the virus) available to research laboratories that have the proper safety protocols in place. We got it a few weeks ago, and in a matter of days, we had grown it in the cell. We have a good stock of virus that we can use moving forward," Bradfute said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ramped up research at laboratories across the country.
Only certain labs with biosafety level designations (BSL) of three or four are allowed to work with infectious agents such as COVID-19, according to guidelines specified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Bradfute utilizes a BSL-3 research laboratory that is specialized to deal with potentially infectious agents like tuberculosis, hantavirus and now the novel coronavirus.
"From the time the virus was recognized as causing illness to the time where we had the entire sequence of the virus, and this took place in China, was a couple of weeks, whereas before it would have taken months to even years to do this," he said.
Modern technology has greatly accelerated the pace of discovery, according to Bradfute.
"People are sequencing the virus as they isolate it from patient samples — sequencing it within a matter of days or weeks — and then uploading it to a shared site so that scientists from all over the world can compare what the virus looks like in one place versus another," Bradfute said.
In addition to knowing what the sequences are from around the world, having the ability to detect the virus quickly is also helpful for researchers.
"The speed at which companies are coming up with kits to detect the virus — or to work with the virus — is very, very rapid, so there's a lot more reagents that are available to work with the virus," Bradfute said.
Because the novel coronavirus is a variant of SARS — a virus public health officials have known about for nearly two decades — the similarities bode well in developing a vaccine for COVID-19 relatively quickly, according to Bradfute.
According to a February World Health Organization (WHO) news release, experts are building on "existing SARS and MERS coronavirus research (to) identify knowledge gaps and research priorities in order to accelerate scientific information and medical products most needed to minimize the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak."
Bradfute confirmed that scientists have already developed drugs that work in early-stage experiments in test tubes against SARS.
"(They) can test those drugs against the new coronavirus to see if there's any inhibition of the ability of the virus to replicate," Bradfute said.
Though scientists have many factors working in their favor, Bradfute explained that because the novel coronavirus is especially infectious and historically high levels of travel accessibility are available today, the global spread of the virus has been swift.
"The hard part is that this virus has spread across the globe pretty rapidly, in part due to the fact that we travel more," Bradfute said. "It's also a respiratory pathogen, so it spreads from person to person through droplets or contaminated surfaces, and that makes these viruses spread more quickly than some more dangerous viruses (that don't) spread as well."
According to the WHO's manual on containing respiratory infections in health care settings, a droplet is "produced by breathing, talking, sneezing, coughing and includes various cells types (e.g. epithelial [also known as skin cells] and cells of the immune system), physiological electrolytes contained in mucous and saliva including sodium, potassium and chlorine, as well as, potentially, various infectious agents (e.g. bacteria, fungi and viruses)."
Bradfute said the speed at which vaccine prototypes have so far been developed to go to clinical trials has been impressive but cautioned there's still a long way to go before having treatments available for the public to use.
"Because other scientists have been able to sequence this virus very rapidly, there (are) already vaccines that have been based on the sequence of the virus that are going to be in the trials in the next couple of months," Bradfute said.
In addition to developing a vaccine that would be used to prevent people from getting infected, Bradfute's lab — and others around the world — are also testing therapeutics that could be administered to people once they're already sick.
"There's one clinical trial in humans going on soon — this is with a drug that worked against SARS in test tubes — and they're going to try it in human patients in Asia in the coming weeks," Bradfute said.
Though optimistic about the relative speed of the vaccine development process, Bradfute advised that the science isn't something that can be rushed.
"I never make predictions, because that's the thing about biology in general and viruses specifically: You really don't know what's going to work and what's not going to work," Bradfute said. "There are sometimes problems that seem impossible to overcome that are actually rapidly overcome, and there are some things that seem should be a low bar for success and it takes a long time."
NMDOH said in an email with the Daily Lobo on March 12 that the state's resources are currently more focused on prevention and mitigation of COVID-19's spread than on developing a vaccine or therapeutics.
Stacy Johnston, a spokesperson for the NMDOH, said she was unaware of any coordinated efforts between the health department and UNM researchers at this time.
Johnston emphasized that "the New Mexico Department of Health's job is to manage and mitigate the spread of this virus" and reiterated that "prevention is our best weapon against the virus."
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the WHO, asserted last month that "understanding the disease, its reservoirs, transmission and clinical severity and then developing effective countermeasures is critical for the control of the outbreak, to reduce deaths and minimize the economic impact."
Although it remains unclear exactly how long it will take to find a way to prevent and treat COVID-19, there is a massive global effort well underway to do exactly that.
"I can tell you that there's a huge push, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world, to try to find either a vaccine or a drug for this virus," Bradfute said. "There are a lot of people working on it, so that's a good thing."
Editor's note: This article has been edited to clarify the lethality of COVID-19 in relation to SARS. While the percentage of deaths from the novel coronavirus is lower than that of SARS, COVID-19 is more contagious than the SARS viral respiratory disease that first emerged in 2002.
Andrew Gunn contributed reporting to this article.
Lissa Knudsen is a public health beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @lissaknudsen