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Roslin broadens research tackling Covid-19

Roslin scientists are contributing to meeting the challenge of the current coronavirus outbreak.

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Roslin work includes investigating the coronavirus impact, origin, treatment pathways and tracking Covid-19.

Researchers at the Roslin Institute are taking part in global efforts to better understand and develop therapies for the ongoing coronavirus infection.

Their work could help ease the impact of the latest SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus outbreak, which has already caused millions of cases of Covid-19 across the world.

Virus impact

Dr Kenneth Baillie, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Anaesthesia and Critical Care at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Inflammation Research and the Roslin Institute, is leading a £4.9 million project funded by the Medical Research Council. This is using samples and data from 1,300 Covid-19 patients in the UK to discover who in the population is at higher risk of severe illness, the best way to diagnose the disease, and what happens in patients’ immune systems to help or harm them when they contract Covid-19.

They will also monitor the effects of drugs used in patients, calculate how long people are infectious, and investigate whether people are infected with other viruses at the same time.

A related study found that being obese reduces the chance of survival in severe cases of Covid-19 and that being male was linked with more serious Covid-19 hospital admissions. The study was led by Dr Baillie – together with Professor Calum Semple from the University of Liverpool, he is leading a UK consortium to characterise clinical cases of coronavirus infection. 

Treatment pathways

Based on evidence from previous outbreaks of similar types of infection such as SARS, treating coronavirus patients with steroids provides little benefit and could do more harm than good, research by Dr Baillie and colleagues at the University has shown.

Steroids impair the immune system’s ability to fight viruses and other infections that often develop in patients with life-threatening illness, they found.

In related work, Dr Baillie is a member of two coronavirus panels of the World Health Organization.

Antiviral therapies and vaccine strategies

Roslin researchers Dr Christine Burkard and Dr Elly Gaunt, who have long-standing expertise in coronaviruses, together with Dr Finn Grey, and Professor Paul Digard are studying molecular details of the virus’s interaction with host cells, with an aim to identifying antiviral therapies and potential ways to improve vaccine strategies.

Virus origin

Dr Samantha Lycett and researchers globally are working to trace when and how the current coronavirus first transmitted from an animal to a person. By knowing this, they can explore what factors made it possible for the virus to spread.

Dr Lycett, Dr Elly Gaunt and Professor Paul Digard are also investigating similarities between the latest virus and SARS-CoV, which is better known medically, as well as related bat viruses and other coronaviruses.

Dr Mazdak Salavati recently led a team who came third in the CoronaHack hackathon for developing a machine learning method that compared the coronavirus between host species (bats and humans) as well as German Covid-19 patients and the first patients in Wuhan, China.

These comparisons are helping to predict regions of the coronavirus genome that could be targeted to disrupt the virus, identify genetic regions of the new virus that may be changing in response to it infecting people, as well as features of the virus that may have allowed it to infect humans in the first place. The insights could help understand how SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and devise strategies to control it.

The most similar other coronavirus to SARS-CoV-2 is found in bats. However, differences between the two may suggest that the current outbreak did not derive directly from bats. There could be other, more similar, viruses from other species that have not yet been sampled, scientists explain.

Tracking Covid-19

Roslin researchers led by Dr Lisa Boden, Dr Thibaud Porphyre, Dr Paul Bessell and Professor Andrea Wilson are part of the Scottish Covid-19 Response Consortium and are adapting their large-scale animal disease models and data analysis and visualisation tools to determine patterns of Covid-19 transmission in Scotland and wider UK, as part of the Royal Society’s Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic (RAMP) effort and through the Centre of Expertise in Animal Disease Outbreaks (EPIC) and the RESAS programme, funded by the Scottish Government.

A team at Roslin, led by Professor Mark Bronsvoort, has developed a dashboard that pulls together data from several sources on the Covid-19 outbreak in Scotland. The data, updated daily, includes the number of cases, deaths and tests performed, to visualise the progress of the outbreak. Data on the global trajectory of the pandemic are also available.

Professor Rowland Kao’s team is working on an individual-based computer model of Covid-19 transmission in Scotland to help Health Protection Scotland better understand regional differences in risks and to plan for changes in control. This work is funded by UKRI and the Wellcome Trust.

Dr Alex Corbishley and Professor David Gally have been awarded £40,000 from the Centre for Expertise for Waters (CREW), in collaboration with Scottish Water, for a three-month pilot project to track SARS-CoV-2 via municipal wastewater.

** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **

Related links

£5m Covid-19 study seeks to understand virus impact

Obesity impacts on Covid-19 recovery prospects

Steroids could impair defence against coronavirus

Covid-19 tracker helps visualise cases in Scotland

Scottish Covid-19 Response Consortium

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