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As Most Labs Stop Work, Researchers Across Harvard Search for Solutions to the Coronavirus Pandemic

Harvard Medical School's Gordon Hall sits across the HMS quadrangle.
Harvard Medical School's Gordon Hall sits across the HMS quadrangle. By Justin C. Wong
By Virginia L. Ma, Crimson Staff Writer

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate in the United States, many of Harvard’s teaching and research operations have shuttered as the University attempts to stop the spread of the disease among its affiliates.

But in labs scattered across Harvard’s Longwood campus, its affiliated hospitals, and its research institutes, business has continued as usual — or even ramped up — as researchers from a wide range of disciplines fight to contain and treat the novel coronavirus.

In late February — before the virus began its rapid spread across the U.S. — a Harvard press release announced that a team of scientists co-led by Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley would collaborate with Chinese researchers on a five-year effort to study the virus.

Specifically, the partners aim to create more accurate diagnostic tests and to design vaccines, antiviral therapies, and treatments. They will share $115 million in funding from China Evergrande Group, a real estate giant and Fortune Global 500 company.

Also in February, the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics shifted its focus almost entirely to coronavirus-related research, launching twenty new projects. School of Public Health epidemiology professor Michael J. Mina, who works at the CCDD, said the center is focused on understanding patterns of transmission in the United States.

“We are also working on understanding which populations might be crucial to transmission, and how different policies that are being enacted are impacting the growth of the epidemic,” Mina said. “Now that we have all the students not being in school and people staying home from work, the major questions are, well, how is this actually working?”

Mina said the center is also developing methods to better ascertain the current state of the epidemic and the impact of various interventions, given a lack of adequate testing domestically.

“We're also developing new technologies and efforts to increase testing capacity,” Mina said.

Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston is currently testing patients for coronavirus. Mina said the Broad Institute, another Harvard-affiliated institution, will begin testing for the virus next week.

Other Harvard affiliates are focusing their efforts on vaccination. Researchers in the Precision Vaccines Program at Harvard-tied Boston Children’s Hospital, for instance, are developing a vaccine specifically targeted toward the group most vulnerable to the virus – the elderly.

Led by PVP Director and Medical School professor Ofer Levy, the researchers are modeling blood samples from elderly individuals outside the body, looking for small molecules called adjuvants. Levy says the molecules work like “rocket fuel,” boosting immune response and activating an elderly immune system.

“We realize that vaccines are not one-size-fits-all, that the response to a vaccine can vary whether the individual is young or elderly, male or female, living in Africa or in the U.S.,” Levy said. “In the context of this coronavirus pandemic, we are moving forward with experiments to build a coronavirus vaccine that's optimized for the elderly.”

In health policy, researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute launched an interactive tool in coordination with the New York Times and ProPublica to estimate and visualize the increases in hospital capacity that will be needed to meet the demands of the coronavirus outbreak.

School of Public Health health policy professor Thomas C. Tsai called the results of the projection “quite daunting.”

“In many areas — in fact, most areas of the United States — there is a critical shortage of available beds versus anticipated beds and ICUs if we are unable to flatten the curve,” Tsai said.

Tsai said the team is currently studying the availability of ventilators and estimating the potential workforce needed to handle an influx of coronavirus patients.

“Our goal is to get the conversation started,” Tsai said. “Then state and local government leaders, hospital leaders can start the hard work of planning for how we create extra capacity to meet the incoming surge.”

—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at virginia.ma@thecrimson.com.

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