Edmonton

U of A looks to acquire coronavirus for research

As public health officials across the globe try to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, researchers at the University of Alberta are trying to get it into their lab and under their microscopes.

'We built the facilities so that we can handle the virus'

Dr. Lorne Tyrrell says the Li Ka Shing institute of virology at the University of Alberta has ordered the genetic material of the coronavirus, and expects to clear the regulatory hurdles to acquire the full virus. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

As public health officials across the globe try to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, researchers at the University of Alberta are trying to get it into their lab and under their microscopes. 

Researchers at the university's Li Ka Shing institute of virology have already ordered the virus' genetic material as they look to discover potential antivirals and vaccines. Director Dr. Lorne Tyrrell says the institute is also in the process of clearing the tight regulatory hurdles to acquire the entire virus. 

"We built the facilities so that we can handle the virus," Tyrrell said. "We have a number of labs that are very keen to work on this virus, either on parts of the virus or the whole virus." 

On Monday, the federal government launched a new slate of expedited funding opportunities for coronavirus researchers. 

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research is offering two-year, $1-million grants to researchers working on counter measures to the virus, whether it's a way to help diagnose it or vaccines to prevent it. The deadline for applications close in a week, an indication of just how quickly researchers are mobilizing their efforts. 

Tyrrell says he is confident the institute will have the entire virus within two weeks and there's no reason for the general public to be concerned.

"If the general population is concerned, just think about the people that are working with these viruses all the time," he said. "But they have learned to work with them, it's very safe and there should be no problem."

With the genetic material, researchers can build the virus' proteins in a lab. They can test what compounds could stop those proteins from activating and replicating the virus. And with that, they can start to develop potential antivirals and vaccines, which they would eventually test against the entire virus. 

"I just wanted people in Alberta to know that this institute is designed for this type of work. We have excellent virologists who are chomping at the bit to get this virus and begin their work."

'Around for quite a bit longer'

The government launched the expedited research opportunities the same day health officials announced the coronavirus death toll had surpassed 1,000, eclipsing the number of people believed to have died in the 2002-03 SARS epidemic. 

"I thought this virus was going to be controlled quicker by public health," Tyrrell said. "I think they've done everything they possibly can, but I think this virus is showing signs that it might be around for quite a bit longer and more infectious."

A quarantine site has been set up at the Canadian Forces base in Trenton, Ont., for hundreds of Canadians evacuated from China. 

The WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency on Jan. 30, days after the Chinese central government imposed a lockdown on 60 million people in Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus.

The total number of confirmed cases in China reached 40,325 by Monday morning, with another 319 cases confirmed in other countries. 

In an ideal scenario, Tyrrell said researchers will find compounds already approved for use in other vaccines and antivirals that are effective against the coronavirus. It would take months and potentially years to get new medications approved for human use, Tyrrell said. 

"At the end of the day, this is about trying to find, through cooperation around the world, the best and fastest way we can to control this epidemic so that people are safe and can travel again without a problem."

with files from Travis McEwan