Georgia Impact Health & Wellness Science & Technology

Four ways UGA research is taking on COVID-19

(Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, researchers at the University of Georgia are hard at work to find solutions to halt the virus. They join top researchers from across the globe in the critical effort to overcome the pandemic—and to do it quickly.

Researchers are tackling the virus from multiple angles: creating treatments, providing effective testing, tracking the spread of the virus, and chronicling its effects on society and individuals.

Creating treatments

Everyone desperately wants an effective treatment for COVID-19, but no large-scale study has yet proven any drug or drug combination effective at fighting off the virus. There’s also no vaccine to prevent infection. UGA researchers are part of a massive effort to change that.

Scott Pegan, director of the Center for Drug Discovery in the College of Pharmacy, is leading efforts to create an antiviral to combat the virus using drugs similar to those designed to cure other coronaviruses. Pegan is also working on a vaccine in collaboration with colleagues in the college and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are working to adapt a vaccine used against the virus that causes Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever to stop COVID-19.

Meanwhile, several UGA infectious disease faculty have extensive experience with chloroquine, the parent drug of hydroxychloroquine. At the end of March, the FDA approved the emergency use of hydroxychloroquine in severely ill COVID-19 patients. Research already in progress to study the efficacy of chloroquine in preventing malaria could prove useful in determining how effective the drug might be against the novel coronavirus.

Other scientists in the College of Pharmacy are adapting existing models used to design and develop vaccines and therapeutics for respiratory diseases to be used against the coronavirus. Researchers expect to begin testing candidates in the next few weeks using the adapted models.

Scientists in the lab of Ted M. Ross, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and director of UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology, are also developing and testing new vaccines and immunotherapies to fight the coronavirus. Researchers have already begun analyzing the viral genome to find the targets that will prompt the immune system to create protective antibodies. They will soon examine how effective those targets are against the virus in small-scale lab tests.

Effective testing

Accurate and reliable testing is a cornerstone of the ongoing effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Not only do tests allow medical workers to identify infected patients, they provide critical data to epidemiologists who track the spread and impact of the disease.

Gov. Brian P. Kemp recently announced the creation of a laboratory surge capacity plan to quickly increase the number of tests for COVID-19 in Georgia, and UGA researchers are working closely with partners across the state to increase testing capacity.

This initiative leverages the collective laboratory resources under the University System of Georgia, Georgia Public Health Laboratory and Emory University. Upon implementation, labs will process over 3,000 samples per day.

“The increase in testing capacity is critical to Georgia’s effort to battle COVID-19 in our communities, and our institutions are working hard to make it happen,” University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley said. “The experts at Augusta University, Georgia State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Georgia understand that urgency and have the capacity and expertise to make this work for Georgia. We appreciate their hard work, and we thank our laboratory partners at Emory University and the Georgia Public Health Laboratory.”

One of the most significant challenges associated with COVID-19 testing across the country is that suppliers are struggling to keep labs stocked with the instruments and chemicals necessary to perform the tests. Several UGA researchers—including teams led by Ted M. Ross, Mark Jackwood, Jeffrey Hogan and Ralph Tripp—are developing new diagnostic tests that don’t rely as much on materials that are in short supply, which will help ensure that testing continues regardless of supply chain volatility.

Tracking the spread

UGA began modeling COVID-19’s potential spread through the research of John Drake, Distinguished Research Professor in the Odum School of Ecology. Drake leads the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, a research hub that illuminates the connections between animal health, human health and the environment. He uses a range of data sources to produce statistical models that track and predict how COVID-19 is spreading.

In January 2020, Drake formed UGA’s Coronavirus Working Group with a team of about 30 scientists. The group built and continues to maintain the COVID-19 Portal, an interactive tool that forecasts outbreak scenarios based on models created by Drake and his team. For example, through April 6, the tracker noted more than 361,126 reported cases of COVID-19 and 10,604 deaths in the United States; however, it estimated that the actual number of U.S. cases on that date was closer to 5.5 million.

Carbohydrate molecules called glycans (shown in dark purple) cloak the surface of COVID-19 “spike proteins,” helping to fool the body’s immune system by essentially camouflaging the virus against attack by antibodies. This 3D model of a COVID-19 protein spike was created by Rob Woods and his research team at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center.

Other UGA researchers are taking their models down to the molecular level. The physical structure of a virus particle, or virion, plays a key role in its ability to infect host organisms. Rob Woods, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and his team at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center have created a 3D model of protein “spikes” on the virus particle’s surface. These spikes latch onto cells in our airways and then physically force the virus through the cell membrane to infect us. Modeling these structures helps researchers understand how COVID-19 evades immune responses by coating itself with human molecules. This work could guide the design of vaccines or therapeutics.

Chronicling impacts on people

The pandemic has changed the daily lives and routines of nearly everyone across the country and much of the world. To inform perspectives now and in the future, social science and humanities faculty are already working to understand the impact on society and individuals.

Michelle VanDellen, an associate professor of psychology, is working with over 100 international social scientists to collect data on societal factors that might predict the spread of COVID-19 with a project called PsyCorona.

“We want to know how COVID-19 affects different people and cultures, and to mobilize our teams of behavioral scientists to identify targets for rapid intervention to slow the spread of the pandemic and minimize its social damage,” VanDellen said.

Meanwhile, Richard Slatcher, the Gail M. Williamson Distinguished Professor of Psychology, is collaborating with international colleagues to determine the psychological effects of “sheltering in place” with their “Love in the Time of COVID” project.

Other researchers are just getting new projects off the ground, like an effort from Eric Zeemering, an associate professor of public affairs, to gather information about how Georgia cities took action in the early days of the pandemic. This research could provide valuable lessons about how local governments responded to the crisis.

Meanwhile, the Willson Center is supporting student and community artists’ efforts to capture this moment through Shelter Projects, which is aiding in the creation of shareable reflections on the pandemic through the arts and humanities.