A Graduate Student’s Perspective on SARS-CoV-2 Research and the COVID-19 Pandemic
As a UT Health San Antonio Ph.D. candidate, I am performing my dissertation research in Dr. Luis Giavedoni’s lab at Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed). While our lab typically studies the innate and adaptive immune responses to retroviral infections in nonhuman primate models and vaccine-induced protection against infection with flaviviruses and filoviruses, we have shifted our focus to meet the immediate needs of the public and scientific communities due to the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2) and the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID‑19) pandemic.
Currently, there is not a well-characterized animal model for COVID‑19. There have been some studies in mice, rhesus macaques and other animals with various strains of coronaviruses, but none of them can recapitulate the pathogenesis of SARS‑CoV‑2 observed in humans. Texas Biomed and the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) houses the world’s largest baboon colony, about 1000 animals.
Additionally, the Giavedoni lab has extensive experience utilizing baboons in biomedical research. In fact, my dissertation project involves characterizing the baboons as a model for human HIV elite controllers. Baboons have not been yet explored as a model for coronavirus infection, but they have served as excellent animal models for other pulmonary pathogens such as Bordetella pertussis, Streptococcus pneumoniae,Mycoplasma pneumonia, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Importantly, baboons have been shown to be susceptible to natural infections with coronaviruses. In conjunction with many other investigators at Texas Biomed, our lab will investigate the baboon as a validated animal model for consistent infection with SARS‑CoV‑2 and resulting COVID‑19. We will perform this life-saving research through evaluation of lung images and function, systemic and tissue-specific measurement of innate soluble and cellular markers, and humoral immune parameters, combined with detection of SARS‑CoV‑2 by molecular and cell culture techniques.
While I understand that this is a very trying time in many people’s lives, especially in this age of social media and constant news cycles feed into our fears. But personally, I have found these past few weeks to be intriguing! My passion has always laid with biosafety and emergency preparedness. I am grateful that this event is giving me a chance to see the inner workings of the policy and procedures that govern the scientific community- the simple and the challenging, the rapid and the laborious.
Everyday, I check both the WHO and CDC sites for any updates, and read any new journal articles or briefings that are published. I hope this will allow me to be an asset to our coronavirus response team. But beyond that, I am also trying to help my family and friends who are not in the scientific community dig through the misinformation and nonsense that is rampant. I am trying to give them solid and stern advice, while not allowing their anxieties to take over their lives. This event has revealed both our strengths and weakness as a society. I feel very humbled to be able to be a small part of these studies and hope I can make a difference in this pandemic and the research that is sure to follow.
About The Author
Amanda Rae Mannino is a Ph.D. candidate at UT Health San Antonio, and an American Society for Clinical Pathology certified Medical Laboratory Scientist. She is a member of the Giavedoni Laboratory at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, where she is investigating non-human primate animal models for HIV/AIDS research. She is driven by a passion for STEM policy and communication, and the opportunity to influence evidence-based changes to help improve human lives.