SAN ANTONIO – Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered nearly every aspect of our lives. The shutdowns, the job losses, the millions of deaths globally - it is difficult to put into words just how much has been forever changed and how much so many have lost.
But through it all, science has provided hope. And a big part of that research happened in our backyard at Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio.
In this episode of KSAT Explains, we’re hearing directly from some of the local scientists behind crucial COVID-19 research that’s been done during this pandemic. They walk us through how the pandemic affected their work, the incredible scientific breakthroughs we’ve witnessed and how those breakthroughs could help us battle future viruses and diseases.
(Watch the full episode on-demand in the video player above.)
‘We were really heading for something very, very worrying’: How Texas Biomed responded to the pandemic
Many of the scientists we talked to at Texas Biomed weren’t shocked at the emergence of a pandemic. As they told us, a lot of people who work with infectious diseases are aware of the likelihood of a pandemic. But, just like the rest of us, the severity of the threat wasn’t immediately clear.
“Then it became apparent that it was going to be massive and have a major impact on research, on people’s daily lives, on the economy,” said Dr. Joanne Turner, Texas Biomed’s vice president of research, and a scientist with an active research program in tuberculosis. “We were really heading for something very, very worrying.”
Researchers at Texas Biomed were forced to switch gears.
“From a research perspective, all targeting and all focus went to COVID research, and rightfully so,” said Dr. Corinna Ross, the associate director of research at Southwest National Primate Research Center.
As cities across the globe were shutting down, there was a growing sense of urgency felt across the scientific world.
Dr. Larry Schlesinger, president and CEO of Texas Biomed, told us that the institute was one of the few places actually prepared for the pandemic, thanks in part to a strategic plan that was adopted in 2018. Part of that plan included reconstructing the private, not-for-profit institute to work on infectious disease prevention.
According to Schlesinger, once the organization realized how serious the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, they put the right scientists in the room to do their best to make a difference and contribute to medical research based on their expertise and resources.
Texas Biomed’s expertise in biomedical research dates back 80 years. The institute has had a hand in working on medical research for decades, including the first Ebola treatment, and the first treatment for Hepatitis C.
“We have the ability to handle research and development related to any infectious diseases because we have tremendous history and experience related to what is called biocontainment research,” said Schlesinger.
Biocontainment research is done in biosafety labs, which are designed to allow scientists to study viruses and other pathogenic organisms without releasing those viruses into the public, or infecting researchers. These labs are ranked from biosafety level one through four, or BSL1 through BSL4, depending on the danger of the pathogens being studied at each level.
Another resource Texas Biomed has on its 200-acre campus: the ability to test on animals. The institute is home to more than 2,500 nonhuman primates, and about 5,000 rodents.
The scientists we talked to told us that it didn’t take long for them to realize they would need to develop animal models to test COVID treatments and potential vaccines. But to do that, they needed money. According to Schlesinger, they were able to raise $5 million within a couple of weeks.
“This is unprecedented,” he said. “So, we had the expertise, we had the animals, and we had the resources now.”
‘Animal research was instrumental’: The research that preceded human clinical trials
From there, research began. Scientists at Texas Biomedical Research Institute joined in the global effort to tackle COVID-19.
To find a cure, treatment or vaccine for a virus, scientists first have to understand how that virus works: what does it do? How does it replicate? What happens when it infects a host?
So, the very first step was to get the virus.
“Then we had to amplify, which essentially means growing up the virus in a way that we didn’t change what happened to the virus,” said Dr. Ricardo Carrion, Jr., the director of maximum containment contract research and a professor at Texas Biomed.
Carrion was hired at the institute after receiving his Ph.D. in 2003. Much of his work is done in the BSL4 lab, and involves developing new programs to research hemorrhagic fever viruses, like Ebola.
Of course, more recently, much of his work has been done at BSL3 labs, which is where all COVID research is done.
“We looked at how it [SARS-CoV-2] behaved in tissue culture, and we were able to determine that what we propagated was sufficient enough to put into animal models at that point,” Carrion said.
Developing animal models just means researchers found a protocol in which they could, in a controlled fashion inside a BSL3 lab, attempt to infect the animal with the virus.
“When we first encountered this new virus, we didn’t know which animal model we could use,” Turner said. “We didn’t know whether it would infect non-human primates or rodents or another species.”
Once scientists determined rodents and non-human primates could be infected with SARS-CoV-2, they were able to test treatments and vaccines.
Schlesinger told us that’s around the time that Pfizer approached Texas Biomed wanting to test their mRNA vaccine using animal models. At this point, research had already been done in tissue culture dishes, so animal models were the next step.
“Human trials are really good,” Turner said. “But before the human trials, you have to make sure [you have] something safe and effective in animals, so that we know it’s going to be safe when we put it into humans.”
The data collected from the animal studies was used to help prove that the vaccines were safe enough to be used in human clinical trials. By December 11, 2020, the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was authorized for emergency use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration. Moderna received that same authorization a week later.
“Animal research, and particularly non-human primate research, was instrumental in the licensure of the two approved [mRNA] vaccines,” said Dr. Deepak Kaushal, director of Southwest National Primate Research Center.
The animal models created by Texas Biomed were also used to test Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody drug treatment, which was used to treat former President Donald Trump when he contracted the virus last year.
‘We may not be so fortunate next time’: Lessons learned for the next pandemic
The goal for all of us since March 2020 has been to get through this pandemic. But the end of headlines dominated by COVID-19 doesn’t mean we’re done with pandemics. In fact, every scientist we talked to for this episode is already thinking about the next one.
And the likelihood that it will be more challenging to tackle.
“The key is, we may not be so fortunate next time,” Schlesinger said. “Next time we may have an outbreak of a fever and we don’t know what it is.”
Fortunate may seem like an odd word to use when it comes to COVID, but according to researchers, that’s exactly what we are. Fortunate they already had familiarity with coronaviruses. Fortunate that the mRNA technology existed and money was made available to develop vaccines that work.
“I think this [mRNA] is a really effective and relatively easy to manufacture safe platform for vaccines for the future,” Schlesinger said. “So I think it’s a game-changer.”
How the next vaccine is formulated to fight the next virus that’s discovered is an unknown. According to Schlesinger, 15 to 20 new viruses are uncovered worldwide each year.
While COVID is no longer new, we’re still learning about it. Researchers are still trying to answer questions: why are there so-called COVID long-haulers, the people who live with symptoms months after being infected. Why do some fare far better with COVID than others?
Learning more about the immune system will be key.
“We expect that infectious diseases in the next 30 years will become the most prevalent form of human ailment,” Kaushal said.
Another challenge the researchers we talked to hope to work on may not be the result of any clinical trial. They’d like to see clearer, straightforward communication about science, making it more approachable. Especially when it comes to vaccines.
“As scientists, we don’t always communicate well ... and I think that has to change,” Turner said.
She also said she’s already seen that start to change during this pandemic. It is now much more common to see researchers talking to the public, explaining how diseases and treatments work.
Confusion can lead to distrust and vaccine hesitancy, according to Ross.
“That leads us to this idea that there’s this mystery behind what’s happening,” she said. “There’s this black box of what occurs, and science is for the super-elite and the super-smart or whatever, and none of that is true.”
Instead, she said, science is about discovery and asking questions. And perhaps the biggest question in front of all of us now is when will this pandemic end? Things seemed to be returning to normal in 2021. Then the delta variant arrived.
The more COVID spreads, the more it mutates.
“If we can stop the virus being in us and not transmitting it to others, we can stop the variants,” Turner said. “It’s really that simple.”
So, to have less virus in the population, Turner says people need to be vaccinated, or masking and distancing themselves from others.
“Every time a virus can divide, there’s a chance we’ll have a new variant,” Turner said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, that new variant is not any worse than the one we see. Maybe one percent, we’re going to see one that is.”