WHEN SARS-COV-2, THE NOVEL CORONAVIRUS causing COVID-19, emerged in China and spread around the world, scientists and researchers had a rapidly shrinking window to find a solution. Despite the pandemic forcing Auburn University to close campus in March 2020 and work remotely, several faculty and staff members have shifted or redirected their research to aid in the search for vaccines and treatments against COVID-19.
Constantinos Kyriakis, a veterinary virologist who studies respiratory pathogens that originate in animals and are
transmitted to humans, has worked with several viruses over the years — most notably influenza, which shares many similarities with COVID-19.
Kyriakis and his research lab are part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance, a consortium of research groups in the U.S. and the world that work with influenza viruses. The similarities between influenza and COVID-19 was one of the reasons Kyriakis and his colleagues were able to divert existing funding to COVID-19 research.
“They’re both RNA viruses that transmit in a similar way,” said Kyriakis. “SARS-CoV-2 is more severe, but that’s also because we don’t have any prior immunity against it, while almost everyone has preexisting immunity against influenza viruses.”
Kyriakis is affiliated faculty at the University of Georgia’s Center of Vaccines and Immunology and is working with Professor Ted Ross, the center’s director, to develop vaccine prototypes for testing. Kyriakis intends to test novel vaccine designs on pigs acquired from the Auburn University Swine Research and Education Center. Less expensive to test than non-human primates, pigs share similar immune responses to humans and can provide very useful information of vaccine performance, Kyriakis said.
Unfortunately, given the high transmissibility and severity of COVID-19 infections, Auburn researchers will only be able to use activated virus or prototype vaccines containing a small amount of the virus. Only facilities with Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) labs can work with the live virus, and Auburn only has containment labs up to BSL-2.
“Depending on what results we get, and if the pig models work, we would move forward with testing more vaccines,” said Kyriakis. “We can optimize vaccine doses and formulation in pigs and other animals before we move forward with clinical trials in humans.”
Robert Pantazes spent his graduate training and early career developing computational methods to engineer and design therapeutic proteins known as antibodies. As a chemical engineer, his long-term interest is in developing better methods of producing chemicals, and antibodies have several features that make them an excellent starting point for developing those methods.
Antibodies are immune-system proteins naturally produced by the body in response to infections. Despite playing a limited role in fighting an initial infection, they are critical for long-term immunity that prevents us from being reinfected with the same virus, Pantazes said.
“In late January, early February 2020, we could see the writing on the wall, and at that time my senior graduate students started working on designing antibodies to bind to SARS-CoV-2,” said Pantazes. “We are pursuing several different strategies in parallel to identify those antibodies to increase our likelihood of rapidly developing diagnostics and/or treatments for this disease.”
Pantazes and his team were recently awarded an National Science Foundation grant titled “RAPID: Antibody-based nanoplasmonic barcode biosensors for COVID-19 detection,” which aims to develop antibodies that will bind to SARSCoV-2. These antibodies will be used in real-time, point-of-care diagnostic biosensors used by doctors. In the same time it takes to measure someone’s temperature, you could determine if they have COVID-19.
“An exciting aspect of this research is that the antibodies we develop with our collaborators at the University of Texas at Austin for the biosensors may also be useful as a therapeutic for hospitalized patients,” said Pantazes. “While the work is still in an early stage, we are working fast and are very excited about the potential of some of our preliminary results.”
For Joanna Sztuba-Solinska, an assistant professor of virology studying Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpesvirus that causes cancer in immunocompromised people, the worldwide pandemic has forced the closure of important conferences and postponement of experiments critical to her work. But as much as the global science community is missing out, she sees an opportunity to prepare for a similar epidemic in the future.
“Now more than ever, doctors are talking with virologists and scientists; that is a connection that has been observed rather rarely,” she said. “I would like to see that [connection] being built; both groups have a lot to learn from each other.”
Funding for research to support academic faculty and students, clinical trials and more is necessary not only to study deadly viruses like COVID-19 but to increase public education and awareness about the importance of vaccinations to eradicate already preventable viral diseases, she said.
“Let’s say, at the end of this year, the beginning of next, we’ll have a vaccine that is going to work,” said Sztuba-Solinska. “People will vaccinate the first year, maybe the second year. The guess is that in the third year, everyone will forget, then somebody will get sick, somebody who is immunocompromised or suffers from other diseases — that will again cause this vicious circle.”