In Louisiana, amid skyrocketing rates of the novel coronavirus and a statewide stay-at-home order, scientists are finding themselves face-to-face with the virus they hope to develop a vaccine for.
At the Tulane National Primate Research Center (TNPRC), scientists from across the United States are coordinating their research in nonhuman primates, like rhesus macaques, to develop diagnostics, treatments and vaccines for the novel coronavirus.
These scientists are on the front lines of fighting COVID-19. Like health care workers and first responders across the country, they understand how fast they have to work to save as many lives as possible and are facing many of the same challenges.
"I think we’re pretty busy," said Dr. Rudolf "Skip" Bohm, associate director of the TNPRC about 40 miles outside New Orleans. "The thing is, though, that in order to win this battle against the COVID pandemic, the research we’re doing is essential. So what we know is that if we push and we’re busy, it’s the only way we’re going to find therapies or vaccines that are going to save thousands of lives worldwide.
"All of us are of that mindset that we got to push through this and ramp it up and get this done because that is what we do," he said.
As of Saturday morning, there were at least 601,478 cases of COVID-19 and 27,862 deaths globally, with 104,837 cases and 1,711 deaths in the United States.
On Thursday, the scientists entered a new phase in their search for a COVID-19 vaccine when they infected four monkeys — two rhesus macaques and two African green monkeys — with the virus. Bohm said they decided on four through a statistical model that determined that’s how many they’d need "to answer the questions we needed" while also using the fewest number of animals possible.
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Every few days moving forward, they plan on analyzing the animals with X-rays and taking blood, fluid and, eventually, tissue samples in an effort to see how the virus works inside their bodies. If the results are as they expect, the infection in the monkeys will mimic that in humans, Bohm said.
"Once we show that the disease looks the same — so the same percentage of animals get sick as in the human population, they have the same sort of illness and the same sort of symptoms as humans — then we can use them to test vaccines or develop treatments," Bohm said.
A vaccine wouldn’t be available for at least a year, Bohm said.
"That’s actually pretty rapid, believe it or not, to be able to do these things in that fashion," he said, noting the steps they need to take to launch on the study, from designing it to getting federal approval.
Earlier this month, a federally funded phase 1 clinical trial on an experimental COVID-19 vaccine began in Seattle, where four volunteers were given jabs at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. There will be a total of 45 people enrolled in the trial.
The clinical trial is using a vaccine that had been developed to prevent SARS and MERS, two other pathogens that fall in the coronavirus family. Bohm said the researchers working on the vaccine were able to move quickly into human clinical trials because the vaccine had already been tested in animals and proven safe.
"That’s fortunate that there was a vaccine developed and [it] never went into production because now they could pick it up where they left off," he said.
A phase 1 clinical human trial for a COVID-19 vaccine also began in China on March 19.
At the TNPRC, researchers are starting essentially from scratch, studying the "coronavirus that is causing the disease right now," COVID-19, Bohm said.
He said the National Institutes of Health, which funds the center, is just now "opening up the possibility for acquiring grants to study the coronavirus." A typical study involving up to six monkeys can cost between $300,000 and $600,000 per vaccine and that their animal model study alone will cost an estimated $345,000 in internal funds.
Angie Birnbaum, director of biosafety at Tulane University, is responsible for the safety of not only those working inside the laboratories where these tests on COVID-19 are being done but also those outside of them, working to ensure the pathogens they work with stay inside the labs.
"These laboratories are incredibly specialized so when you look in a space like this, you’re going to see, basically, a tight seal offering maximum containment," Birnbaum explained.
The labs, she said, are pressure tested to ensure there aren’t any hidden holes through which the virus can escape. Specially designed ventilation systems prevent the virus from spreading throughout the building.
There are different levels of protocols necessary for the researchers to enter different labs, too. In some, they may not be allowed to wear street clothes under their personal protective gear, Birnbaum said. They might have to wear double layers of gloves or a mask that pushes air out so that a virus can’t accidentally reach their mouth, nose or eyes. As they leave, they also have to go through the proper decontamination and sterilization procedures, Bohm said.
The TNPRC has only just begun testing the monkeys with COVID-19. And while Birnbaum says they have enough supplies to handle upcoming studies, like personal protective equipment, pipettes, plates and other research materials, she expressed concern over the supply chain. Everything is backordered, she said.
After meetings with the other national primate centers around the U.S., she said this is an issue they could face, too.
"The same struggles we are having here, we can also see that other institutions are struggling," Birnbaum said. "Things like personal protective equipment deficits, shortages which can really impact our ability to do this type of protective way in high containment… This is a very unique pandemic situation in the sense that normally you don’t have this type of massive loss of those types of resources."
"So, we’re really trying to think outside the box and figure out ways to carry this on because we’re all heart and soul into it," she continued. "But, you know, there are so many things that are flying at us and the other centers are dealing with that, too."
A spokesperson for the TNPRC said the facility has historically received PPE through private distributors and companies and that it would continue to do so as long as they continue to meet their needs.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all residents of the state to stay home on Sunday, March 22, the same day that he said during a press conference that the state had seen faster growth in the number of COVID-19 cases in the first 13 days than any other state or country in the world. By Saturday morning, Louisiana had 2,746 confirmed cases of the infection and 119 deaths.
Bohm said that due to the speed at which they have to work and because they can’t cut corners in their testing, they’re ramping up the hours they’re putting into their work. At the same time, he said the TNPRC had not previously seen an infection spread through his community like COVID-19 has, and that it’s created special challenges.
"The effect of the disease is pretty profound in our ability to do the research because of staffing and people having to work from home," Bohm said, noting that if people on staff become ill, they may have to readjust schedules or even train other scientists on how to work in certain labs.
Nobody on the facility’s staff was sick as of Friday evening, a spokesperson for the TNPRC said.
Bohm is also concerned for the monkeys. With 4,500 monkeys living on the property, he said there’s a "high suspicion" that rhesus macaques are susceptible to the novel coronavirus based on preliminary data.
"What that means is that our breeding colony is susceptible to infections for humans — from our workers," Bohm said. "Knowing that sometimes people are sharing the virus or infectious before they get sick is a real concern of ours. … If they are infected and get sick, and they recover, they most likely can’t be used in any coronavirus research."
Bohm said his facility has been "fielding calls every single day and having lots of meetings with scientists" from around the country who have vaccines, therapies and diagnostic tests that they want to develop.
"So, we’ll be doing as many of those as we can. But with a network of seven primate research centers, we’re all contributing to that effort to get this done. … This is what the primate centers and other research facilities were designed for — when something happens," Bohm said. "And so, we’re prepared to do that."