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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

Columbia: At Forefront of Global Efforts to Combat Coronavirus

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has provided the Center for Infection and Immunity live SARS-CoV-2 samples to use in research to develop rapid tests and identify sources of transmission. Columbia is one of the few institutions to receive samples, which must be housed in a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab.

The Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health has launched a research initiative to develop rapid and reliable tests to diagnose novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and to identify sources of transmission, particularly in individuals with the infection who have mild disease or are asymptomatic.

The virus has spread to more than 60 countries and presented health experts with urgent questions the scientific community is racing to solve. How contagious is the virus? How does it spread? Are there mild cases that are not being detected?

The Columbia research center, known as CII, has experience with such challenges. Under the direction of Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, John Snow professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, a CII research team introduced the first sensitive diagnostic test for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, and in 2014, and helped to identify the animal source for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus.

To augment CII’s efforts to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has issued laboratory samples of the live virus to the CII. Columbia is one of the few elite institutions to receive samples of the virus, which will be housed a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) laboratory at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus. No live virus research will take place on Morningside or any other Columbia campus.

The high-level containment laboratory is designed to handle microbes and infectious agents and protect lab personnel. In operation since 2003, the facility is certified and regularly inspected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. (Read the Coronavirus Research FAQ.)

CII will work in close collaboration with Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Guangdong Province Center for Disease Control and Prevention to develop diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2. Scientists need the pathogen to probe the biology of the emerging infection and to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines.

“It’s a new virus. We don’t know much about it, and therefore we’re all concerned to make certain it doesn’t evolve into something even worse,” said Dr. Lipkin, who is also professor of neurology and pathology and cell biology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.  “We need to better understand modes of transmission, including critical questions about how long it can persist on surfaces, such as door handles and banisters, and how viable it is at various temperatures and humidity levels.”

Dr. Lipkin returned in early February from China, where he had been advising the China CDC and preparing a formal report for the Chinese government. “Discussions with the Chinese scientists and leaders of the Ministry of Health and of Science and Technology led us to determine that an immediate challenge to controlling the outbreak is the lack of sensitive screening tools to identify who is infected and who is not,” said Lipkin, who also self-quarantined for 14 days at home upon his return.

“Most of our current focus is on developing diagnostic tests that can be used to determine who should be isolated and for how long, and to make decisions about drugs and antibodies that can be used even now to reduce the severity of illness and prevent deaths,” he said. Read more about these efforts.

Elsewhere at Columbia, four research teams at the University will share a $2.1 million grant to mount an aggressive effort to identify potential antiviral drugs and antibodies for use against the new coronavirus.

The Columbia teams will pursue four different approaches to develop drugs or antibodies that prevent the virus from replicating. Each approach will draw on prior knowledge and expertise the scientists gained while working on successful antiviral therapies against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C.