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Wash U researchers develop lab-made virus that mimics COVID-19

Since the hybrid virus can be handled under ordinary laboratory conditions, it will enable more scientists to study COVID-19
Credit: Washington University
Paul Rothlauf, a visiting scientist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, works with a lab-made virus that infects cells and interacts with antibodies just like the COVID-19 virus, but lacks the ability to cause severe disease. This safer virus makes it possible for scientists who do not have access to high-level biosafety facilities to join the effort to find drugs or vaccines for COVID-19.

ST. LOUIS — The virus that causes COVID-19 can only be studied under high-level biosafety conditions, which can slow down efforts to find vaccines since many scientists don’t have access to the required facilities.

So, to help remedy that, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine have developed a hybrid virus that can be handled under ordinary laboratory safety conditions, according to a press release.

Researchers genetically modified a mild virus by swapping one of its genes for one from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The study is available online in Cell Host & Microbe.

“I’ve never had this many requests for a scientific material in such a short period of time,” said Sean Whelan, head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology. “We’ve distributed the virus to researchers in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and, of course, all over the U.S. We have requests pending from the U.K. and Germany. Even before we published, people heard that we were working on this and started requesting the material.”

How the hybrid virus could be used:

  • It can help scientists evaluate a range of antibody-based preventives and treatments for COVID-19
  • Assess whether an experimental vaccine elicits neutralizing antibodies to see if a COVID-19 survivor carries enough neutralizing antibodies to donate plasma to patients
  • Identify antibodies with the potential to be developed into antiviral drugs

“One of the problems in evaluating neutralizing antibodies is that a lot of these tests require a BSL-3 facility, and most clinical labs and companies don’t have BSL-3 facilities,” said Michael S. Diamond, the Herbert S. Gasser Professor of Medicine. “With this surrogate virus, you can take serum, plasma or antibodies and do high-throughput analyses at BSL-2 levels, which every lab has, without a risk of getting infected. And we know that it correlates almost perfectly with the data we get from bona fide infectious SARS-CoV-2.”

Diamond said the hybrid virus is a potential vaccine candidate since it looks like SARS-CoV-2 to the immune system but doesn’t cause severe disease. 

Click here for more information on the hybrid virus.

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