In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was all hands on deck at Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research (CVR), where researchers were among the first in the U.S. to be able to study the actual virus.
Now, with the pandemic waning, those scientists are back to their basic research on a broad spectrum of viruses — the same kind of expertise that made the center well-positioned to leap into action in 2020. The public may be moving on to other stories, but for virologists, their refocusing means going back to preparing for the next pandemic.
“I’m really proud of what the center contributed. We really did good things,” said Paul Duprex, Jonas Salk Chair for Vaccine Research in Pitt’s School of Medicine and the CVR’s director. “You have to know when to jump in, but you also have to know when to jump out — when you’ve done what you were morally obligated to do.”
Duprex breaks down the center’s mission into three areas: how viruses emerge as a threat to humans, how they make us sick and how we fight them. Scientists at the CVR tackle these questions across a broad range of different viruses that are, or could in the future, be a danger to humans.
To pursue that mission, Duprex is reimaging the center’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, a high-security facility where researchers safely study dangerous viruses. He’s also overseeing a greater focus on influenza virus and believes it is vital to expand research on arboviruses, those carried by insects and similar species, which are likely to become a bigger threat due to climate change.
Amy Hartman, CVR faculty and an associate professor in the School of Public Health, studies a group of mosquito-borne viruses called bunyaviruses. One line of her research is working to understand on a molecular level how the Rift Valley fever virus can infect animals as diverse as mosquitoes, cows and humans. She’s also studying how the virus spreads to fetuses in utero and how such spread might be prevented through novel vaccines or antibody therapeutics.
“The Rift Valley fever causes widespread disease in Africa and the Middle East right now, and the mosquitoes that transmit it are found all over Europe and North and South America,” said Hartman.
Valerie Le Sage, a research assistant professor in the School of Medicine, just began her role at the CVR on July 1. Her expertise is in designing animal experiments that mimic as closely as possible the conditions under which the influenza virus is transmitted through the air to figure out how important factors like preexisting immunity and environmental conditions are to determining when a person exposed to the flu actually gets sick.
“We’re kind of playing with the system to try and make it more relevant and looking at transmission in that context,” Le Sage said. “We’re taking a more holistic perspective on transmission.”
With her new access to the biocontainment laboratory and the collaborative research environment offered by the CVR, she hopes to expand that more real-world approach to experiments on other viruses of concern, too.
The COVID-19 pandemic also sparked new partnerships for the CVR, including several pending collaborations with pharmaceutical companies and international organizations like the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiatives. The recognition garnered by the center for its pandemic preparedness research, Duprex said, opened the door to completely new avenues of research alongside the center’s historical strengths.
“There’s a continuum of science that happens independent of Trevor Noah, the Secretary of State, ‘60 Minutes’ and everybody else we’ve talked to,” he said. “The pandemic might be over, but it doesn’t mean you go back to where you were. Science always evolves.”