SVM Researchers Lead Efforts to Understand, Thwart New Coronavirus

SVM Researchers Lead Efforts to Understand, Thwart New Coronavirus

By Kelly April Tyrrell, University Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Editor’s note: This article was written for the April 2020 issue of the WVMA Voice newsletter. The information is current as of mid-March, when the newsletter went to press. The situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is evolving rapidly so some details may have changed by the time of publication.

Back in 2016, when Zika virus first began to cause infections in the Americas, University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers pulled together a coalition of scientists to study the virus and openly share their data for others.

In late January, those researchers – Thomas Friedrich, professor in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM), and David O’Connor, professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health – used the 2016 playbook to start planning efforts to study the novel coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019.

The virus, which causes flu-like symptoms and respiratory illness, has sickened more than 153,000 people globally, according to health officials. At least 5,700 people have died.

Friedrich, O’Connor, and their interdisciplinary partners have begun studies to better understand the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

“We are working together to develop a plan to build out nonhuman primate models to test medical countermeasures such as vaccines and therapeutics,” says O’Connor. “We want to make sure we are recapitulating the kind of clinical signs (of virus infection) that happen in people.”

The researchers are interested in understanding the dynamics of viral infection, including what bodily fluids it can be found in and what cells in the lungs are most vulnerable. They are also interested in aiding basic epidemiological understanding of the virus and in assisting in efforts to identify or develop new vaccines and antivirals. Further, they hope to look at how the immune system responds to the virus and to identify indicators for clinicians to distinguish who is most at-risk for developing severe disease.

At the Influenza Research Institute (IRI) in Madison, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor of pathobiological sciences in the SVM, is also studying COVID-19.

Among the research questions he hopes to address is the efficiency with which the natural virus transmits among animal models for disease. The novel coronavirus is capable of transmitting from person to person, but it most likely originated in bats. However, as with other coronaviruses known to cause significant illness in humans, such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, the virus likely passed through another animal before becoming infectious in humans. Researchers have not identified the animal or animals involved.

Kawaoka is also interested in studying how the virus causes illness and what cells the virus is capable of infecting. The results of the work could be used to help develop treatments and vaccines to protect people against infection.

The work at IRI will be conducted in a Biosafety Level 3 Agriculture (BSL-3 Ag) laboratory, which is just below Biosafety Level 4. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for research using the COVID-19 virus to be conducted in a BSL-3 laboratory since important aspects of how the virus causes disease and transmits are not well understood.

The university worked proactively with Public Health Madison and Dane County, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the State Lab of Hygiene, infectious disease specialists, and University
Health Services to prepare to conduct the research.

With these studies, SVM and UW-Madison researchers are at the leading edge of efforts to understand an emerging human illness. Kawaoka stresses that basic research studies are necessary to combat pathogens that make animals and people sick. O’Connor, Friedrich and their collaborators plan to once again share their data publicly so that other researchers may use it to advance the science, and hopefully lead to efforts to improve and protect human health.

Says Friedrich: “My lab is interested in why things like this happen, why do viruses emerge from somewhere and begin causing diseases in humans? What are the evolutionary pathways they need to take hold, and how do they adapt to our immune responses? If we can understand that, hopefully we can erect more barriers to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.”