Tulane scientists discuss ongoing coronavirus research including plans to vaccinate animals

Updated: May. 18, 2020 at 7:03 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Tulane researchers hope to vaccinate animals very soon as part of their wide-ranging work to fight the novel coronavirus.

And one researcher at the university doubts Mardi Gras is the reason the virus took a strong hold on the city of New Orleans.

The university sponsored a webinar called, "Tulane Innovation: The Race for COVID-19 Treatments, Tests and a Vaccine,” on Monday (May 18).

Bob Garry, PHD, is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine. He rejects claims by some that the coronavirus may have been developed in a lab.

"We put a team together of the leading evolutionary virologists in the world, people that have spent their careers looking at how viruses have evolved from one species and jumped into other species, like into humans unfortunately,” he said.

Tulane’s videoconference happened within hours of the drug company Moderna announcing that the first coronavirus vaccine to be tested in people appears to be safe and able to stimulate an immune response against COVID-19.

Dr. Skip Bohm, Associate Director and Chief Veterinary Medical Officer at Tulane National Primate Research Center commented on the Moderna announcement during the webinar.

"In the Moderna vaccine, is a nucleic acid vaccine which means pieces of the genetic material from the virus are injected into the body or administered and cause the body to make pieces of the virus that are not infectious that the immune system recognizes” said Bohm. "On a personal side, I'm optimistic that we will be able to develop a vaccine. It seems that in talking to some of our other colleagues who have not published their findings yet that they're finding similar outcomes with even different platforms of vaccines."

Bohm said they are doing vaccine research of their own at Tulane.

"We'll be vaccinating some animals in the next couple of weeks for challenge experiments to evaluate yet another vaccine,” said Bohm.

Garry said whenever a vaccine is approved for use it must be widely available.

"Once we’ve identified the best vaccines that they can be scaled and given to as many people as possible,” Garry said.

Bohm said expectations that a vaccine will be on the market by the end of 2020 should be tempered.

"But will we have a vaccine by the end of the year, it's highly unlikely,” he said.

Garry said tests to gauge immunity are also important. He is part of a team that is working on an antibody test for the virus.

At Tulane, researchers are also tracking strains of the virus found in New Orleans and comparing them to other samples for genetic analysis.

"What we found with the viruses, the SARS-CoV-2 viruses from New Orleans is pretty interesting. We actually found that the genetic variability between the viruses is not that great,” said Garry. "There was a lot of talk from a lot of different quarters early on that, you know, Mardi Gras was an event that may have caused the virus to have such an impact in New Orleans, while we can't rule things out at this point in time it certainly doesn't look like there were a lot of introductions of SARS-CoV-2 into New Orleans because of that Mardi Gras event."

Garry said the way people tend to interact in the city may have played a big role in how the virus spread.

"Here in New Orleans, it looks like there weren't that many introductions. I mean it could have been some events that caused a great spread of the virus in the city, but I think that's mostly due to our culture, the way that people interact in our city. I wouldn't blame this on Mardi Gras,” said Garry.

The Tulane researchers are also looking at how the novel coronavirus is affecting animals that are exposed to it.

“The animals shed virus and lots of virus for up to two weeks after infection. We also saw, similar to humans, that most of the animals didn’t become overtly ill, they didn’t have serious disease,” said Dr. Bohm. “But there was a sub-set of animals that did have serious disease, disease that was similar to humans that are admitted to the hospital and put on ventilators.”

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