WSU COVID-19 research tackles the present and future pandemic

Illustration of coronavirus spike ball in front of double helix

From tracking to treatment to prevention, Washington State University scientists are expanding our understanding of the current COVID-19 crisis while helping lead international efforts to identify and stop the next potential pandemic.

“Our research response to COVID-19 exemplifies what WSU does so well as a land-grant university: bring the best science to bear on a problem to find practical information and solutions for the people of Washington and the world,” said WSU President Kirk Schulz. “Science and teamwork are our best hope for a way forward, and I am incredibly proud of our faculty whose persistence and innovation will help us get through this crisis and prevent a future one.”

More than 150 researchers are working on projects related to COVID-19 throughout the WSU system. Many, such as identifying differences in how people are responding to the pandemic, have present applications, while others are helping advance our knowledge of this disease so as to prevent a future, similar outbreak.

Here’s a look at some of the more prominent WSU research projects so far:

Identification and prevention

Zoonotic potential – Molecular virologist Michael Letko was among the first to publish functional laboratory data on the new virus with a study in Nature Microbiology in February. Before the current crisis, he had built a platform using synthetic coronavirus particles to test which were most likely to infect human cells, and when the current coronavirus hit, he was able to analyze this virus, SARS-CoV-2, quickly. His work showed how SARS-CoV-2 infects cells and is being used to help researchers test vaccines and existing drugs that might work against the virus that causes COVID-19. Now Letko is setting up a lab at WSU Paul G. Allen School of Global Animal Health to further test coronaviruses to see which has the greatest potential to jump from animals to humans. His work has the potential to identify and help stop the next coronarvirus outbreak before it happens.

Early detection – The university has also extended its pandemic prevention efforts internationally. WSU is one of only 11 universities selected to establish Centers of Research for Emerging Infectious Diseases by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Each center focuses on a different region of the world, and WSU’s center, funded through a $7.6 million NIAID grant, is located in Nairobi, Kenya where the university has long-term partners as part of its WSU’s Global Health-Kenya program. The new center will help prevent future pandemics by conducting surveillance studies, studying pathogen transmission and improving detection of emerging pathogens across 9 countries in east and central Africa.

Tracking and understanding transmission

WSU’s epidemiologists and health researchers have played key roles in modeling and understanding potential spread of COVID-19, helping inform public health decisions on local, state and national levels.

Rural America – Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine researchers led by Ofer Amram have developed a COVID-19 rural area tracking tool that provides a daily report on rural areas experiencing infection spikes across the United States. The tool, which can also identify counties with limited hospital capacity, aims to help these often-underserved communities better respond to the crisis in their area.

Prison outbreaks – Eric Lofgren, a health systems epidemiologist with WSU Global Health, led an effort to model the COVID-19 spread in prisons around the country, pointing to the need to reduce the jail population to prevent more deaths inside prisons and prevent the spill-over effects. Lofgren has also helped survey hospitals on their COVID-19 practices and model the impact of sport events on the viral spread in college towns.

Underserved populations – Testing and transmission are also big areas of study. Recently, a team led by Dedra Buchwald, College of Medicine professor and director of the Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH), was awarded a $4.4 million grant for a project to better understand and encourage testing in urban American Indian and Alaska Native populations.

Infant health – Biological anthropologist Courtney Meehan is teaming up with researchers at University of Idaho, University of Washington and Tulane University to investigate maternal-infant SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk via breastmilk and breastfeeding as well as host immune responses to infection in breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding women and infants. Results will inform national and international guidance for infant feeding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Treating COVID-19

Immune system response – One of the most dangerous parts of a COVID-19 infection is its potential to trigger an immune inflammatory response over-reaction, called a cytokine storm, which can be fatal. Viral infection researcher Santanu Bose has a promising new treatment to address this problem. It takes aim at a protein called A9 with antibodies, suppressing, but not eliminating, the immune system response, so it does not go into an overdrive. His patented technology was recently licensed to a Canadian biotech company which aims to develop it into an approved therapeutic treatment.

Effect on other health conditions – The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted those with underlying medical conditions. Two new College of Medicine projects that recently received grant funding from the Empire Health Foundation are helping address the effects on cancer patients in Washington state. One led by Patrik Johansson will investigate the perceived impact of the pandemic on the health and well-being of cancer patients living in rural and tribal communities. Another project led by Ofer Amram will evaluate the impact of deferred preventive care on cancer patients.

Coping with the current pandemic

WSU economic researchers have tackled a number of associated problems the pandemic has posed: including the willingness of Americans to travel and stay in hotels as well as job transitions.

Stress, exercise, alcohol and boredom – Research is underway on whether exercise can curb stress and anxiety from COVID-19,  changes in alcohol use during the pandemic as well as dealing with the experience of boredom while living under stay-at-home measures.

COVID-19 Innovation Challenge  – A newly funded project led by April Needham, director of the University Center for Innovation in Spokane, challenges entrepreneurs in the Inland Northwest to develop innovative products to address issues arising from the current and future pandemics, such as the lack of personal protective equipment or PPE. Learn more about this contest on the COVID-19 Innovation Challenge website.

Fighting misinformation – How the public responds to the crisis impacts the effectiveness of any health measures, and Murrow College of Communication researchers Porismita Borah and Erica Austin are investigating attitudes around vaccine adoption. WSU is also a partner with University of Washington in Center for an Informed Public to fight against misinformation around the pandemic, and digital expert Michael Caulfield has been promoting the SIFT method for quickly identifying misinformation on social media.

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