By Becca Wolf | Bond LSC
With shelter in place orders being extended throughout the country and events being canceled, COVID-19 is a pressing issue, and influenza researchers at MU have been pivoting recently to begin studying the virus.
Henry Wan, an influenza researcher and Bond LSC principal investigator, is planning on expanding his work to start looking at COVID-19 along with a team of epidemiologists, anthropologists, engineers, and more at MU. While influenza and COVID-19 are not the same virus, both are infectious respiratory illnesses transmitted through similar ways.
Wan has spent years investigating the workings of influenza, so as the COVID-19 pandemic has played out he has been keeping an eye on its developments. He explained COVID-19 is “being incorporated into my study, in that human cohort, to study and monitor the disease that is going on here. We have established the diagnostic capacity in the lab for COVID-19 but I haven’t tested any samples yet,” he said as of March 18.
A few weeks ago, there was an online meeting of virus researchers at MU to discuss research efforts to combat COVID-19 and what their labs bring to the table. One idea they came up with is to have a cohort in Columbia, that would provide materials such as blood samples over time to track not only the spread of influenza and COVID-19, but vaccine and medication effectiveness. Jane McElroy, an epidemiologist in the MU school of medicine said, “Right now there’s the flu vaccine, so we want to get serum samples four times a year from community members, around vaccine times, and then a couple of times throughout the year to just see what their antibodies look like.”
“Once we have a COVID-19 vaccine, the participants in a cohort could help us by letting us see how their body’s immune functions are maintained with the vaccination,” she said.
This way, MU researchers would not only be getting information on influenza in Columbia but also COVID-19.
Lisa Sattenspiel, professor and chair of anthropology at MU, is also starting a project that is based on her research on the 1918 influenza epidemic. She is comparing the patterns from 1918 to what is going on with the current pandemic and looking at social, economic, and behavioral data to track the spread. “We’re starting this project now,” she said and a National Science Foundation grant proposal has recently been submitted for funding this idea.
Though a very serious and quick-moving situation, Wan and his collaborators are coming up with ideas to understand COVID-19. Not much is known yet about the virus, but they are doing their best to change that.
Wan cannot complete this research on his own. Along with students in his lab, he has already collaborated with more than 15 people throughout MU.
“I really enjoy collaboration, everyone is very passionate,” he said, “I think it is very important.”
Everyone brings a unique perspective and expertise to the team which leads to more breakthroughs.
McElroy has connections in the medical field that help Wan obtain samples from people who have influenza symptoms and, in the future, potentially people with COVID-19 symptoms as well. Working with her colleague, Dr. Shamita Misra, medical director of Mizzou Quick Care Clinics located in Columbia Hy-Vee stores, health care providers gather these samples from community members. Extending this work, McElroy has begun working with Dr. Christopher Sampson, a University of Missouri Health System emergency room physician, to identify and gather blood samples from patients with COVID-19.
By using samples from the community, Wan is able to track trends throughout Columbia and use that information to find ways to make the community healthier.
Another person Wan has collaborated with is Sattenspiel, who has been conducting influenza research for more than 25 years.
Sattenspiel tracks how influenza spreads throughout communities with computerized models of towns that simulate potential outbreaks. Having this knowledge gives Wan and his team a better idea of the rate influenza spreads and how to stop it.
Sattenspiel explained, “We are working on designing models that can deal with the entire life cycle of a virus and what goes on at the community level, how it gets transmitted within communities, how it gets transmitted within households, and what happens inside the human body. Ultimately, the goal is to look at different strategies for controlling it.”
With this model, she can test preventative strategies and see their effects.
“So things like vaccinations, if the vaccination works in a certain way, what’s its impact going to be, not only for the individual who was vaccinated but for the community in which they live?” Sattenspiel said.
Another preventative strategy they are looking at is social distancing, which has become relevant and especially effective recently with the COVID-19 pandemic. Through these collaborations, Wan is able to get a well-rounded view of influenza in order to create effective vaccines. He also hopes the addition of the new Next Gen Precision Medicine Institute will expand his research even further.
Wan’s Influenza Research
Arriving at Bond LSC last summer, Wan hit the ground running. He already has several grants and collaborators working on projects to improve the flu vaccine and figure out how influenza spreads in addition to his other work.
“We mainly focus on two aspects,” Wan said, “On one side I’ve been mainly focused on the influenza vaccine and the other aspect on influenza risk assessment.”
As a result, Wan’s lab looks at many factors such as, why the flu vaccine does not work, how to get a better flu vaccine, and which flu virus is more dangerous to humans, among others.
To test this, Wan gathers swab samples from people who have influenza much like how COVID-19 samples are collected.
“From the swab, we look at the virus whether it matches any flu vaccines,” he said. Wan and his graduate students and other senior lab members then look at this data and interpret it to come up with a solution.
Wan recently received a $3.65 million research project grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to determine if the number of vaccines a person has affects the number of times they will be infected with influenza. He said getting a flu vaccine results in “A lot of heterogeneity in our immune profile, affecting the vaccine.”
Wan and his team are curious if these vaccines build off each other and what the yearly effect of getting a flu shot is on the body. By understanding this, he will be able to come up with a way to improve the vaccination program, making it stronger.
In addition to this grant, Wan’s two other grants focus on predicting the influenza virus. Using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning technology, and sequencing techniques, he looks at how the virus mutates and escapes the immunity in human populations. With this information, scientists are informed on how to make an effective vaccine, especially with new strands of influenza.
Just because COVID-19 is currently the world’s main focus, does not mean it’s the only virus in town. People still get sick from influenza annually, so Wan and his collaborators plan to continue their research on the spread of influenza and improving vaccines.
“The resources are really focused on coronaviruses because of what’s happening right now, but influenza is not going to go away either,” said McElroy, “Lots of people also die from influenza every year so we know that it is also important.”