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‘All hands on deck’: U. researchers work to stem COVID-19 pandemic

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

“In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”

The University’s long-standing motto rings with new resonance this month, as more and more members of the community join the fight against COVID-19. But while shipments of surgical masks, donations of gloves, and fundraising for food banks have drawn the spotlight, professors and graduate students are laboring behind the scenes to conduct potentially groundbreaking research. 

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On April 10, the University awarded funding to seven faculty research proposals, each aiming to tackle the crisis from a different angle, be it through urban planning, economics, or public health. Even before this initiative, several studies were already underway. One such report, conducted by researchers at the University, in collaboration with the University of California Los Angeles, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), investigated the surface-stability of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“[The first finding] is that this virus doesn't stick around forever in the environment, but it also doesn’t disappear immediately,” said Dylan H. Morris GS, a researcher in the Levin Lab of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB).

“The second key finding, I think, is that the virus was broadly comparable to SARS-Cov-1, the virus that caused the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak,” he continued. “That suggests to us that the fact that this virus, SARS-Cov-2, is proving substantially harder to control than SARS-Cov-1 is not due to some difference in how well they persist in the environment. Rather, it’s probably due to something else.”

The study was conducted at the Rocky Mountain Labs in Montana, a level-4 biosafety lab led by the NIH and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and designed to test contagious pathogens. To arrive at their findings, the researchers used a technique called “endpoint titration,” in which they diluted a virus-containing sample with healthy cells until the virus failed to spread. The level of dilution was then used to estimate how much of the virus was present in the tested sample to begin with, and helped the researchers arrive at a better idea of the stability of the virus on certain surfaces.

Morris, who contributed to the study’s mathematical modeling, said that some of their findings could help healthcare professionals take appropriate precautions to protect against the virus. 

According to Morris, researchers are now investigating the virus’ rate of infection.

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“One of the things we’re measuring now, and other labs are measuring now,” he said, “is sort of trying to estimate how much virus does a sneeze actually put out? How much virus needs to be left for you to actually have a high chance of getting sick?”

“Those are things we don’t yet know,” he added, “but we’re working hard to find [out].”

In the meantime, other labs on campus have been working with state leaders to develop more effective public policy responses to the pandemic. Alexander Becker GS and Ian Miller GS, in the Grenfell and Metcalf Labs, respectively, said their labs have collaborated with each other on recent work, as well as with other universities, including Emory and Johns Hopkins.

“A lot of that work is both trying to map risk and also figure out what resources are in these counties in terms of beds, ICU, etc. and how that compares with expected burden,” said Becker.

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The labs have worked closely with the office of the Governor of Missouri, and will soon be partnering with an NGO that advises the Africa CDC.

For Miller, the work has been an “all hands on deck scenario.”

“Everyone that works in this field pretty much knows everyone else,” Miller explained. “You work across university lines pretty much constantly in your day to day stuff. And then when something like coronavirus shows up, that just intensifies [it].”

While some researchers have drafted plans to best respond to the virus, others are attempting to trace its origins and spreading patterns. Daniel Park GS, of the Grenfell Lab in the EEB Department, has contributed to three studies completed earlier this year.

One of the studies focused on asymptomatic transition — the transmission of COVID-19 by people who do not demonstrate common symptoms, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. The phenomenon has garnered much attention recently, as evidence of such transmission vastly changes the validity of reported case numbers.

“There is some evidence that asymptomatic transmission is possible, but we don’t know much about it, and especially, we don’t know how asymptomatic are different from symptomatic carriers,” said Park.

“What we were interested in was given the uncertainty of asymptomatic carriers — their ability to transmit and their time scale of transmission — how this affects the epidemic estimates of the coronavirus disease,” he added.

According to Park, “everything boils down to ‘generation time,’” which is the length of time between the onset of symptoms in one individual and the onset of symptoms in an individual infected by that person. 

“There are two papers that try to estimate it that came out a couple weeks ago, but before that we really didn’t have any estimates of what the generation time was like,” he explained.

Park also contributed to a study on social distancing practices in South Korea, whose seemingly successful response to COVID-19 has drawn international interest. In this study, researchers took a closer look at the potential impact of social distancing and other tactics aimed at halting the virus’ spread.

The study draft, posted in late February, examined the effectiveness of social distancing practices in cities, namely Daegu and Seoul, where they had been implemented.

“We were interested in looking at whether other factors such as such social distancing had any role in assisting suppression of the spread,” said Park. “We think that the differences in the degree in social distancing could have contributed to these differences. So at the national level, it looks like Korea is doing well, but there is a fair amount of geographical heterogeneity in the spread.”

What’s next for these researchers? More long hours, more collaboration, more grant-writing — and hopefully, more important discoveries. No matter the research, from measuring the virus’ surface stability to mapping the availability of key medical supplies, they share a common cause: to work in the nation’s service, and in the service of humanity.

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