UT researchers work to understand coronavirus outbreak — research could lead to a vaccine someday

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two University of Texas research initiatives are looking at how to intervene in the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.

On Friday, the U.S. announced that American citizen returning from Hubei province, where the outbreak originated, will now have a mandatory 14-day quarantine

Meanwhile, several Chinese cities have been quarantined entirely.

Studying the spread of coronavirus

Dr. Lauren Meyers, a professor of Integrative Biology at UT, studies how diseases spread.

She has teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control to build a model of travel data to answer one main question: How many people left Wuhan for other cities around China before they implemented the quarantine there?

“How many people every day were taking either airplanes or trains or driving by car from Wuhan to 370 other cities around China?” Meyers said. “What our research suggests is there was quite a bit of disease that probably left.”

In fact, their data shows 131 cities, or more, had at least a 50% chance of having an infected case arrive before the quarantine. She said that means many of those cities are now seeing an outbreak themselves.

As far as how that could impact the U.S., she said she would fully rely on the CDC guidelines.

KXAN asked if Meyers thought the quarantines were instituted too late. She said she believes the timing and use of quarantine is “not well understood.”

“This quarantine in China is unprecedented. Never before has a government quarantined this amount of people to stop the spread of disease,” Meyers said. “So I don’t think we really have the science yet to say when and where is best to quarantine.”

But she said their research proves that by the time the quarantine started, there was already a lot of disease out there.”

“The science is also telling us there were probably many more infections in the first month, or month-and-a-half, of transmission in China than have been reported yet by Chinese Public Health,” meyers said.

That could mean, she said, that many more cases are ending up in the hospital with milder symptoms.

One step closer to a vaccine?

Across the street on campus, Dr. Jason McLellan and his team are laying the groundwork for what could be used to make a coronavirus vaccine.

They are using cryo-electron microscope technology to study proteins related to the coronavirus. McLellan said the goal is generating more stable versions of a protein that could eventually “be injected into people as a vaccine.”

That vaccine, however, could take years.

“That’s why our approach is to develop things before they happen, and try to create vaccines that broadly protect against coronaviruses in general,” McLellan said.

He has been studying different types of coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS, for years. He said whenever an outbreak like this happens, their research pace accelerates as hundreds of researchers worldwide race to intervene.

“It’s a race, if you will, but it is a good race when we have a lot of scientists trying to contribute and intervene in this pandemic,” McLellan explained. “We aren’t sure what methodology or technique will work, or how quickly certain vaccines can be manufactured. So, you want to have a lot of ‘shots on goal,’ and hopefully one of them will work.”

He said a real “win” would get us one step forward to better protecting the public and their health.

UT researcher work on lab on campus (Avery Travis/KXAN)

They noted the microscope technology they’re using for their research was actually funded through CPRIT, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Texans voted to continue funding CPRIT’s initiatives on the ballot last November.

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