5 ways that U scientists are addressing the COVID-19 pandemic

As COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, spreads across the globe, University of Utah scientists are stepping up to the plate to address the numerous unanswered questions that are emerging in its wake. Sound science that informs how the novel virus came to be, how it behaves and how it spreads will be invaluable for developing and implementing strategies to defeat it.

Within a few short weeks, more than a dozen new research studies have popped up across the U—from physics to biochemistry to bioengineering—and many more are in the works.

The U’s Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease Initiative quickly assembled support for these new efforts with a virtual meeting that attracted 207 participants and funding for COVID-19 research. While projects at the U vary in approach, they share a common goal: To create a brighter future for all of us.

We describe five of them here.

Do changes in temperature and humidity affect the new coronavirus?

One of the biggest unknowns about the coronavirus is how changing seasons will affect its spread. Researchers from the Department of Physics & Astronomy received grant funding to answer this question. The physicists will create individual synthetic coronavirus particles without a genome, making the virus incapable of infection or replication. The researchers will test how the structure of the coronavirus withstands changes in humidity and temperature, and under what conditions the virus falls apart.

Lead scientists: Michael Vershinin and Saveez Saffarian from the Department of Physics & Astronomy

A drug to block infection

One thing we really need is a medicine that prevents or treats COVID-19. Biochemists at U of U Health are working toward that goal by repurposing a strategy they developed against another infectious disease, HIV. Their trick is to build mirror-images of pieces of proteins, called D-peptides. These little chemicals are designed to jam the infection process and because D-peptides aren’t found in nature, they aren’t degraded by the body. This could mean that one dose could last a long time, simplifying treatment and lowering cost. Getting new drugs approved can be a lengthy process so this approach may not help with the current outbreak. That’s why the scientists are simultaneously creating a broad inhibitor that could be effective against other new coronaviruses.

Lead scientists: Debra Eckert, Christopher Hill and Michael Kay from the Department of Biochemistry

Origins of the new coronavirus

Bats are rife with coronaviruses, most of which are likely harmless to people. Scientists have found that these viruses can exchange pieces of genetic information with each other, giving rise to viruses that cause outbreaks in humans. To find the role these exchanges may have played in the origin of SARS-CoV-2, researchers in the Department of Human Genetics are scouring the virus’ genome to find regions that have changed recently, and are determining whether genetic exchange could have empowered the virus to infect us and evade our immune defenses. Understanding how docile viruses turn deadly could one day inspire new ideas to stop them.

Lead scientists: Stephen Goldstein and Nels Elde from the Department of Human Genetics

Who should be tested for COVID-19?

We are living the reality that there is a limited number of COVID-19 tests, due to international shortages of supplies to make them. In this situation, it is best to reserve testing for individuals who are most at-risk for having the disease and developing severe symptoms. But who are they? Using mathematical models of disease spread, and clinical data from those who have already been tested, infectious disease physicians are developing an online calculator. Plug in medical data and out comes a score indicating the likelihood that the patient will test positive. If the score is high, the patient should be tested. If the score is low, the patient can monitor symptoms at home (calling in if they change) potentially preserving a precious test.

Lead scientist: Daniel Leung from the Division of Infectious Diseases

Planning for a better future   

If we could see that the future looks dire, we might be able to come up with ways to change it. Epidemiologists are creating models based on what is known about the transmission of the new coronavirus from person-to-person and combining it with census data. The result? An indication of when the disease might enter different parts of the country and expected number of cases. With this virtual world, scientists can then determine how things might change when people take precautions like social distancing. The scientists are also developing hospital-specific scenarios to anticipate needs for beds, masks, ventilators and other precious items in limited supply. With these data, the hope is to be able to shift the future from ominous to optimistic.

Lead scientist: Lindsay Keegan from the Division of Epidemiology