University of Texas Branch at Work on New Coronavirus Test

Experts at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston are working on new tests: one to help diagnose COVID-19 cases and another to understand better the history and mutations of the virus to develop vaccines.

by Nick Powell, Houston Chronicle / March 9, 2020

(TNS) — A team of experts at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston is working on two different tests: one to help diagnose COVID-19 cases and another to understand better the history and mutations of the virus in order to develop vaccines.

The research on the new tests was revealed during a town hall Friday at the medical campus that featured a panel of experts providing updates on what we know about the new coronavirus, and how scientists are studying and planning for the disease that the virus causes.

Dr. Jim Le Duc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB, said researchers are working with the medical center’s clinical laboratory to establish a diagnostic test for COVID-19 that will be ready “very, very soon.”

“It’s basically the same kind of test that CDC has put forward and others,” Le Duc said. “We’ve tried to improve it just a little bit. We’re just at the stage of validating that.”

There has been nationwide concern about the limited number of tests available for the new coronavirus. On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House coronavirus task force, told reporters that there are not enough tests for the virus to meet the anticipated demand going forward.

The disease, which resembles pneumonia and originated in China last year, has infected more than 90,000 people, killed more than 3,000 people in 65 countries and led to the treatment of more than 250 patients for the disease across the United States, 14 of whom have died. Although 11 people with coronavirus had been transferred from a cruise ship to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, there have been six cases reported in the Houston area in recent days.

The diagnostic test that UTMB is developing would help supplement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing capacity and quality, according to Pei-Yong Shi, a professor of human genetics at UTMB.

“Right now what we are talking about is directly testing the virus itself. That means when the patient is still having the virus in the body,” Shi said. “The CDC’s (testing) capacities and qualities remain to be further improved. We’re trying to fill in those gaps and develop that.”

The second test UTMB is developing, a serology test, would help scientists understand the mutations and history of COVID-19. The hope is that this information would be used to develop vaccines and therapeutic drugs to treat it, Shi said.

“Once the virus is gone, we still want to understand, particularly retrospectively later on, we want to know how big is the population that has been exposed to this virus,” Shi said.

During the town hall, Le Duc cautioned that it would take a year or longer to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but added there are already several vaccine candidates being examined, as well as antiviral pharmaceuticals that are being tested.

“It’s very exciting work, very promising,” he said.

©2020 the Houston Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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