coronavirus

‘A Lot of Urgency’: The Race to Find Coronavirus Treatment Inside BU Lab

Scientists at the rare infectious disease laboratory are testing drugs with a live sample of the novel coronavirus

NBC Universal, Inc.

The race is on to find a treatment for COVID-19.

Inside a highly-secured lab, the only one of its kind in New England, researchers at Boston University are testing a live sample of the novel coronavirus.

Microbiologist Rob Davey is one of the scientists feeling the pressure to help slow the growing pandemic.

"There is a lot of urgency," Davey told the NBC10 Boston Investigators via an online interview. "For us, we've gone from zero to 60 miles per hour in record time."

Davey said the work taking place inside the National Emerging Infection Disease Laboratory (NEIDL) is ramping up.

In a photo snapped last week, Davey is seen holding a live sample of SARS-CoV-2 inside the rare Biosafety Level 4 facility, a location where he previously suited up in the space-like protective gear to research the world's deadliest diseases like Ebola.

Davey explained that the biocontainment suit is essentially a plastic bubble with air pumped into it. If it is somehow breached with a small hole, the air comes rushing out and the virus can't get inside.

"It's the safest possible environment to work on any virus," he said.

A timelapse movie he sent NBC10 Boston shows cells under a microscope as the virus quickly infects them. Davey said he was surprised at how quickly the virus moved and showed its toxicity.

The scientists are now testing different drugs, trying to find the perfect cocktail that prevents the virus from spreading, which could provide crucial treatment for infected patients.

Davey said the lab is uniquely positioned to conduct the research uninterrupted. Even though COVID-19 could normally be researched at a lower biosafety tier with protective masks and gowns, those items have been the focus of a highly-publicized national shortage.

As a result, they are conducting the research with the air-tight biocontainment suits.

"We're never going to be held back by the limited supply," Davey said.

Drugs being tested right now are FDA approved, which means they've already surpassed key safety hurdles to make sure they don't harm patients. Davey said that would provide a huge head start to implementing a treatment.

However, if the drug is a new molecule that's never been tested, it will go through a much more rigorous process, which could stretch the timeline into a year.

So as cases quickly rise and the pandemic continues to spread, the scientists know the clock is ticking.

"I'm feeling the pressure to try and help," Davey said, adding that he has two daughters who work at grocery stores and are at heightened risk of exposure. "We need to protect the people who put themselves in harm's way, so I feel a strong need to make a difference."

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