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Ferreting out a COVID-19 animal model
SAN ANTONIO—Scientists at Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed) have announced the launch of a comprehensive research initiative to investigate multiple animal species, and their response to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). This study expands on a previously launched study to validate a baboon animal model for SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19.
The research, which is expected to be complete in the next four weeks, will allow scientists to pinpoint the best animal model to move COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and therapies forward. Animal studies support research on pathogenesis and transmission, as well as the development of countermeasures against SARS-CoV-2. Four additional species have been included in the extended study: macaques, marmosets, mice and guinea pigs.
“As the leading independent, non-profit biomedical research organization in the country focused on eradicating infectious disease threats in the world, we believe it is our duty and responsibility to help find the necessary animal model to treat COVID-19,” said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, professor, president and CEO of Texas Biomed. “In the interest of saving human lives, research on multiple species provides us a greater understanding of disease pathology and progression and gives us a better probability of finding the best model.”
Texas Biomed says that they have secured all required regulatory approvals, and have started growing and culturing the virus. Animals have already been moved into the Biosafety level (BSL)-3 and BSL-4 labs to begin work. Texas Biomed and the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) have experience and success in creating animal models for diseases — such as Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, Hepatitis-C and Zika — and experience evaluating candidate therapeutics and vaccines for a number of virus threats, including SARS.
This expertise has been combined with the development and implementation of reverse genetics approaches to generate recombinant SARS-CoV-2 to facilitate the study of the virus, both in vitro and in vivo, in order to develop novel therapeutics and vaccine candidates. And, expertise in primate clinical biology, imaging and immunology technologies is being applied to ensure a comprehensive evaluation and understanding of the disease’s causes and effects.
“To move a new drug or vaccine to market, biopharmaceutical companies must ensure that the intervention works and is safe for human use. The FDA requires that these safety and efficacy studies be performed in animals whenever possible, before researchers can ethically move on to humans,” explained Schlesinger. “Nonhuman primates are the most closely relevant models of human disease while other animal models are helpful in understanding infection and pathology of the disease, as well as the immune response.”
Several vaccine and antiviral candidates for COVID-19 have been discovered, including some undergoing Phase 1 human trials which aim to determine safety. Further testing and refinement of drug candidates will be needed as studies progress to Phase 2 and 3.
“Just because we have one drug candidate, we don’t stop looking for other ways to stop a virus. A vaccine is 12-18 months out at a minimum, and while antivirals could come sooner, they will need to undergo testing to ensure they work and are safe for humans. A validated NHP model of COVID-19 disease will significantly hasten these vaccine/therapeutic development activities,” stated Dr. Deepak Kaushal, professor, director of the SNPRC and one of the principal investigators of the Texas Biomed study. “With this study, we are positioned to partner with companies and researchers to accelerate the development and approval of therapies and vaccines.”
The Texas Biomed scientific team is supporting nearly a dozen COVID-19 projects both internally and externally, and has begun developing a pipeline of studies with collaborators and business partners worldwide.
“Texas Biomed is the only private research organization with both BSL3 and BSL4 facilities along with maintaining multiple colonies of non-human primate species and other animals capable of providing such a comprehensive study in such a short turnaround time,” Schlesinger added. “We mobilized a tremendous base of supporters to raise more than $3 million toward the completion of this study. This is an excellent example of the power of public/private partnerships to move scientific discovery and ultimately healthcare forward.”