As scientists discover mutations of the virus that causes COVID-19, a K-State researcher said those mutations offer a teaching moment for the entire planet.
Juergen Richt, a K-State distinguished professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, sits on the World Health Organization panel for COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. Richt has submitted multiple publications on the research he and his team at K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute have conducted as they try to find more effective therapies. He said the mutations of this kind of coronavirus, such as the one recently found in National Guard soldiers in Colorado, are inevitable, and sometimes the virus can adapt so rapidly a new treatment concoction is needed.
“You end up playing catch-up,” Richt said.
Officials in California also have discovered a case of the mutated virus. Richt said the mutation originated in the U.K. and is not as bad as the one found in South Africa. He said English researchers have established a good system for tracking changes in the virus, and the vaccines authorized from Moderna and Pfizer will work against any mutated version of COVID-19. Both vaccines are based on the spike protein, or the section of the coronavirus’ shell which allows it to latch on to receptors on the surfaces of cells and infect them.
He said more mutations will occur, and more research will be needed to understand how those mutations may possibly counteract some treatments.
“We have done a lot of work with hamsters, cats, and pigs with COVID-19,” Richt said. “We continue to work on therapeutic approaches and vaccine approaches, especially in our cat model, and seeing what the virus transmission looks like when it comes from a cat, to a human, back to a cat.”
Steve Higgs, director of the BRI, said about 70% of emerging diseases are spillovers from wildlife into humans for various reasons, and focusing on these types of pathogens will give us an understanding to improve our preparedness for what may come next. He said the BRI’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory has done a huge amount of testing of human samples for COVID-19, for both local needs and for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“The university realized the obvious place to do that kind of work was the BRI, and we mobilized the troops as it were,” Higgs said.
Richt submitted a publication last week which analyzed how stable the virus is under different climate test conditions. He said he found the virus to be most stable during the cold winter months, which is on par with other types of coronavirus, and is least stable in summertime.
He also sent in his findings on a new therapy proposal for COVID-19 which “looks beautiful in hamsters.”
“The Syrian golden hamster is a great model for us,” Richt said. “The hamsters don’t get very sick, and they do recover.”
Richt said he is a veterinarian first, so all testing involving animals done in his laboratories is held to international standards for laboratory animal care, and special ethics protocols are reviewed before any experiments are approved.
In conjunction with his team at K-State, Richt is also the director of both the Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases — which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security — and the National Institutes of Health COBRE Center on Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. A frequent traveler to Washington, D.C., he said his “wings were clipped” by the pandemic, but virtually meeting with a global scientific community once a week has been inspiring.
“This is the first time in my career that scientists have come together globally and exchanged stuff which has not been published yet, to help develop vaccines quickly,” Richt said.
One of the challenges which comes with a worldwide research project is shipping materials for study. Richt said there are numerous rules and regulations regarding the shipping of viral samples into the U.S.; he said he will likely receive materials from England next month. However, he is confident the vaccines coming onto the market will work, and he said the fast-tracking of vaccine development and distribution on a global scale is something to be proud of.
“We need to celebrate as a country, and globally, that we could provide mitigation strategies 11 months after this virus appeared,” Richt said. “This is like landing on the moon, but it’s not celebrated like it.”
Higgs said it is not the Kansas style to brag about things, but the work done at the BRI is of notable mention.
“We’re not just a local operation as it were, but the type of info and data we produce have global value,” Higgs said.
A native of Oxfordshire, England, Higgs said there are 19 planned projects at the BRI for next year, ten of which are on COVID-19. Preventative maintenance and cleaning will take place in the animal research area next month, and it looks to be one of the busiest years for the BRI.
“We don’t want these sorts of circumstances to be the reason we’re busy but having the capabilities to adapt and enable these projects is very important,” Higgs said.
Originally from southwest Germany, Richt said he has a network of colleagues all over the planet, and his team of about 25 people in Manhattan is highly trained to perform specialized work extremely quickly.
One of the outcomes of the pandemic, he said, is the recognition of need for facilities like BRI, and for governments to see bio-research facilities as another part of the national defense strategy.
“If the U.S. government or others don’t see that as a very important asset, we cannot respond as fast as we did this time,” Richt said.
Richt said he has been telling the same story about potentially dangerous infectious diseases being transmitted from animals to humans for two decades. He said one example of his statements being taken seriously, and having a worldwide impact, was in 2003 when he diagnosed the first cow in the U.S. with Mad Cow Disease. On Christmas Eve of that year, Richt said imports and exports of U.S. beef were halted, leading to a $4 billion loss in the beef market almost overnight.
“(When communicating science) we have to have the economic side in there to get some attention,” Richt said. “But now with this event and with science coming through, I hope more people will understand the role of basic science in our society and our everyday life.”