Pitt researchers among select few getting coronavirus to study

Paul Duprex speaking to Senate Council


Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research made headlines last week as one of the few university-related facilities in the United States that will get a sample of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research and possible vaccine development.

"We believe this is a great place to do these types of studies because we have the experience, we have the abilities within the Center for Vaccine Research,” said director Paul Duprex at a news conference on Feb. 12 following a Senate Council meeting where he also spoke. “There has been significant investment from the University and the School of Medicine for many years to build and support these facilities.

“And whenever an emergency arises, the University helps us get ahead of getting the virus,” he continued. “Because even though the virus is all over the world, it’s not easy to get into a laboratory. You have to be the right laboratory who can handle the virus in the right way, with the right expertise, so we can carefully, methodically ... understand this disease."

Duprex said he couldn’t predict the date when the virus will arrive on campus, but it will be transported by air and ground using shippers experienced in safely transporting biological and infectious materials.

“There are particular shippers which have the responsibility to send it,” Duprex said. “For example, we just cannot put (the virus) in an envelope, stick a stamp on it and send it to Paul Duprex, Center for Vaccine Research in the University of Pittsburgh. It’s a really carefully regulated way to transport those viruses.”

Once it arrives at the center, it will be contained in a “highly regulated, significantly overseen environment where we manage the facilities, we manage the safety, we manage all of the personal protective equipment to ensure that the people that we work with are not put into any sort of danger.” 

Part of the center’s strategy to mitigate risks is to carry out regular risk assessments, where University specialists help decide how the virus is handled.

“My job is not to put any one of my staff within the Center for Vaccine Research — because remember, they’re the ones who’ve been close to it — or anyone in the University or anyone in the wider community at risk, which is why we have the confidence that we can do this safely,” Duprex said. “Because we’ve done it for over 10 years, we have been rigorously inspected by the Centers for Disease Control year on year.”

The number of people who have contracted the disease is debatable, but officials put the number at more than 75,000 in China, with cases now reported in 28 other countries. The deaths number 1,868 people in China. The first death outside China — an 80-year-old Chinese tourist — was reported Feb. 15 in France. While the number of deaths is higher than 2002-03’s coronavirus outbreak — dubbed SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) —  the percentage of those infected who actually succumb is relatively low — around 2 percent.

The more you know …

Panelists at coronavirus teach-in event

To help quell fears and give some historical context to the new virus, Pitt sponsored a coronavirus teach-in, just hours after announcing the Center for Vaccine Research would be studying the disease.

Megan Freeman, a pediatric infectious diseases senior fellow in the School of Medicine, told the large, packed lecture auditorium in David L. Lawrence Hall that everyone in the room probably had been at some time infected with the coronavirus, which includes the common cold, as well as SARS from 2002-03 and MERS from 2008.

But, she said, people in Western Pennsylvania stand more risk of getting the flu than COVID-19.

At the teach-in, Amy Hartman from the Center for Vaccine Research said Pitt is uniquely qualified to study contagions, such as COVID-19. The Pitt vaccine center, along with others throughout the country, were created after the 9/11 attacks to work with pathogens that posed serious consequences to human health.

The center is in the Biomedical Science Tower 3 and meets all federal safety guidelines. It is mandated to help in outbreaks.

She said the quickly spreading disease offers an opportunity to partner with research facilities worldwide to study the virus in real time.  “It’s fascinating from a scientific and historical perspective to watch this outbreak in real time,” Hartman said.

There has been much misinformation about the coronavirus, and Hartman recommended that those with questions go to the World Health Organization website or the CDC website.

Mari Webel, an assistant professor of history, said that zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted from animals to humans, have been around since paleolithic times. “Part of being a mammal on the Earth is coming into contact with other mammals,” she said.

What animal spread the current outbreak has yet to be determined, but it likely had little to do with what people eat or how their food is prepared, Freeman said.

In the case of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), the virus is thought to have spread from bats, then to the palm civet, then to humans. MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia) was likely transmitted from bats to camels to humans.

Webel said the name of the latest coronavirus was changed to reflect that it isn’t a Chinese disease or Wuhan disease, which is the epicenter of the cases right now. The virus knows no boundaries and neither do the animals from which it originated. The originating point is merely a biological accidental.

In The Conversation, Webel wrote: “While identifying a new disease by its place of origin seems intuitive, history demonstrates that doing so can harm the people who live there. Consequences can include economic distress, as tourists withdraw, investment cools down and solidarities between people weaken. Linking a specific disease with a specific place can lead to discrimination and stigmatization and avoidance of a town or village.”

Zhaojin Zeng, a visiting assistant professor of History, said China’s transportation system played a role in the spread of the disease. Because Wuhan is at the crossroads of the high-speed rail lines, any train going from the mega-cities of Guangzhou to Beijing would have to stop there. The outbreak started at the beginning of Chinese New Year, which meant many migrant workers were traveling from Wuhan back to their family’s homes or to Wuhan from other areas. These two factors make China unique in the way the disease could spread.

The epidemic is already having an economic impact in China and around the world. Apple warned on Feb. 17 that it wouldn’t meet revenue estimates for the second quarter because several iPhone manufacturing sites in China were closed and are just now slowly ramping back up.

Zeng said there also could be a social impact that could damage the legitimacy of the Chinese government. Protests were unusually strong on Chinese social media after one of the doctors who first brought the virus to the public’s attention died from the disease.

Kristen Mertz, an epidemiologist at the Allegheny County Health Department and a former faculty member at the Graduate School of Public Health, said there likely will be more cases in the United States, but public health officials are hoping that the traditional responses of identifying and isolating cases, implementing infection control measures (hand washing, personal protection, disinfection), and monitoring contacts will help slow its progress until a vaccine can be developed.

Travel advisories also are in place including travel bans to the U.S. for foreign nationals who have been to mainland China in the past two weeks, and airport screening of U.S. citizens, residents and their immediate family members who have traveled to China.

When asked if she thought the United States was playing a role in perpetuating fears about the disease, Mertz said she though the public health response has been proportional to the risks.

“Part of the reason for U.S. to declare a public health emergency is to free up some funds,” she said. “The travel ban and quarantines may lessen fear because it shows we’re taking an aggressive stand.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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