COVID-19: Research Advancements at WashU

July 13, 2020

By Emmanuel K. Tetteh, MD, MPH Candidate ’21 Washington University in St. Louis.
Participant, 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research ProgramPublic and Global Health Abbreviated Track
Stephanie and Chris Doerr Summer Research Scholar

As COVID-19 cases in the United States and globally continue to rise, there is an urgent need for responsive and effective scientific research to mitigate the spread of the disease. Washington University in St. Louis is working on the front lines of this response through the University’s researchers. Some of the pressing questions and concerns around COVID-19 vaccine development were addressed by  Sean Whelan PhD, Marvin A. Brennecke Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology,  when he recently spoke to the 2020 Cohort of the IPH Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Abbreviated Track. Dr. Whelan and his team of researchers are developing a vaccine for the disease by replacing a protein on the surface of the Vesicular Stomatitis Virus (VSV) – a virus harmless to humans, with an isolated protein of the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus. When introduced into humans in the form of a vaccine, this modified VSV could help develop antibodies to fight the coronavirus. However, as the development of a vaccine makes progress, an antidote to COVID-19 may still rest in the distant future. Dr. Whelan explains that initial iterations of the vaccine may be less effective and require further research to produce a more potent vaccine.

In the intermediary before the development of a vaccine, Jeff Henderson MD, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, is investigating the use of convalescent plasma transfusion for COVID-19. Convalescent plasma transfusion is a form of therapy where blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients is transfused into COVID-19 patients. Dr. Henderson explains that convalescent plasma transfusion is safe for COVID-19 since research shows a low incidence of standard plasma reactions and no clear evidence of antibody-mediated enhancement of disease. As of July 6 2020, over 48,000 COVID-19 patients have received convalescent plasma therapy in the Expanded Access Program (EAP). The convalescent plasma transfusion method is relatively advantageous since it has a lower FDA hurdle for plasma than for drug, antibody, or vaccine and the advantage of being deployable at scale – high capacity and safety of blood banking in the United States.

In order to collect this much needed plasma along with other bio specimen needed for research, Jane O’Halloran MD, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, and her team of researchers have set up three biorepositories. These biorepositories collect biological specimen from adults and children presenting with COVID-19 symptoms or have recovered from the virus. Thirty nine research groups are currently using the specimen from the biorepositories and over 8000 specimen have been distributed so far. These repository specimen are proving to be essential in studies to develop new diagnostic tests and treatments, study biomarkers of disease severity and for genetic studies to identify risk factors for severe disease.

As treatment for COVID-19 continues to evolve, social distancing is still needed to prevent the spread of the virus. However, little is known about how effective people are practicing social distancing, and people’s willingness to continue social distancing. Virginia McKay Ph.D. is leading research to investigate people’s perceptions of COVID-19 and their ability to participate in social distancing in the St. Louis region. If you are interested in participating in this study, please complete this anonymous 10-minute survey.

This post is part of the Summer Research Program blog series at the Institute for Public Health. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.