Across Mountain West, Scientists Have The Same Goal: Take Down COVID-19
Sometime around Valentine's Day, a box arrived at a lab on the western edge of Fort Collins, Colorado. It contained vials full of coronavirus and it was just what Lindsay Hartson and her colleagues had been waiting for.
"We were really excited because it meant we could start doing the work," said Hartson.
They started growing the virus first. Then, once there was enough of it to work with, Hartson got to business experimenting with different ways of killing it. Hartson is a lab manager at Colorado State University's Infectious Disease Research Center and she's doing this work because a killed virus is the key ingredient in the COVID-19 vaccine they're trying to make.
The idea is that the killed virus would act like a "wanted" poster for the immune system, basically saying, "Here's what the virus looks like, and it's dangerous."
But in order to make a good "wanted" poster, you have to kill the virus the right way. You can't completely obliterate it. It still needs to look like the virus that causes COVID-19, technically known as SARS-CoV-2.
"If we don't have it exactly, we're very close," said Hartson.
Her weapons of choice sound ridiculously simple: vitamins and light. To be specific, she puts the virus in a quart-sized plastic bag and squirts in some vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin.
"If you take a vitamin supplement or a daily supplement, you're likely taking some riboflavin into your diet," she added.
Then Hartson slides the bag into what looks like a copy machine to give it a dose of UV light equivalent to about one-quarter-of-a-second in a tanning bed.
"The actual light treatment itself takes less than a minute, which is fantastic," she said. "It's pretty quick."
The combination of vitamin B2 plus UV light ruins the virus' genetic material so it can't multiply.
"The next big step is: Does this induce an immune response? We're very confident in our ability to inactivate the virus and produce that end of the vaccine," she said. "Now the question is, will it do what we want it to do in an in vivo model?"
In this case, the term "in vivo model" is a fancy way of saying "hamsters." Hartson is waiting on her colleagues in another lab to figure out if the virus she killed actually gets hamsters' immune systems going. The next step after that: Expose the hamsters to the live virus and see if the vaccine protects them.
Ray Goodrich is the executive director of the Infectious Disease Research Center. He said they expect to know by the end of April if it's working or not.
"The step in parallel that we'll be running is, 'How do we scale this up?'" said Goodrich, who said they're working with a CSU non-profit, BioMARC, on that question. One advantage of their vaccine idea is that the same method -- vitamin B2 and UV light -- is already being used in a number of countries to kill viruses and other pathogens in bags of blood so that blood can be given to a patient without inadvertently passing on an infection.
"There are probably about a million people that have been transfused with a product that comes out of this machine," said Goodrich.
This is not to say that the device would be an Easy-Bake Oven of COVID-19 vaccines. But in theory, people with access to it and a Biosafety Level 3 lab could produce the base material for a vaccine, potentially enabling local production.
"Before any of this happened with COVID-19, we were very interested in seeing whether we could apply this approach to developing a vaccine for African swine fever, which has been a major issue in the agricultural industry around the world," he said. "Do I bring the virus here and do it? Or could I take the machine to a location where the virus is endemic?"
It's important to point out that this is just one option for a potential vaccine. For example, researchers in Seattle came up with a potential vaccine using a different approach and have already started testing to see if it's safe in people, though by most accounts it will be 2021 before a COVID-19 vaccine is available for use.
"When you have a problem of this magnitude, attacking it from every possible angle that you can is wise, because you don't know which one is going to work best," said Goodrich.
Meanwhile, in a small town called Hamilton, Montana, scientists with the National Institutes of Health are also working hard on COVID-19.
Emmie de Wit and Vincent Munster, who work at a place called Rocky Mountain Laboratories, aren't offering any interviews at the moment because they're slammed with COVID-19 work. But I visited them back in 2016, when they'd been studying all kinds of nasty viruses including the 1918 flu, Nipah virus, Ebola virus and MERS coronavirus.
Now, that list includes the virus that causes COVID-19. On that visit four years ago they showed me what it was like to do this work. For really serious pathogens like Ebola, they suit up in what looks like floppy plastic space suits with rubber boots attached. They attach an air hose to each suit.
"As soon as you close the zipper, you're in a plastic bubble with no air otherwise," de Wit explained at the time.
Zipped inside, with air streaming in from the hose, it feels like being inside a tiny airplane. De Wit said you get used to it.
"You can't do anything else other than what you're doing at that moment, so I really like to be that focused on just one thing," she said in 2016. "You're in your own little bubble doing your own thing."
While they don't need to be in this extreme gear for COVID-19 experiments (it isn't Ebola, after all), animal studies will sometimes take place in the high-biosafety lab. In any case, they've been busy.
In what's been described as "unbelievably fast," Munster and his colleagues figured out how the virus invades human cells and they just this week came out with a study that found that the new coronavirus can stick around on plastic and stainless steel for up to two or three days.
And de Wit published a study last month showing that an antiviral drug called remdesivir helped treat a small group of monkeys infected with another coronavirus, MERS. It's now being used in experiments to treat people with COVID-19. Now on their infinite to-do list: test the efficacy of potential vaccines.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.