Coronavirus research going full speed ahead in Hamburg

Focus on diagnostics, active substances and vaccine
13 May 2020
P11 biomolecule measuring site at DESY's PETRA III X-ray source

Pharmaceutical companies and research institutes in all corners of the globe are going all-out to come up with a vaccine against the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Yet, what is the nature of a vaccine? Essentially, a vaccine tricks the body into believing that it is infected with a pathogen to make the immune system develop protective antibodies. An international donor conference, held in early May as part of the Global Response Initiative to counter the virus and to make diagnostics and treatment available, saw governments of more than 40 countries pledge EUR 7.4 billion in funds.

Joining forces against the virus

Germany is putting EUR 525 million towards the fight. "We must join forces on many global fronts to defeat the coronavirus. We must develop and produce a vaccine and use it all over the world and make it available at an affordable price," said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.

Evotec Group fighting on global level 

More and more companies and institutions are joining forces and pooling their expertise. The Hamburg-based Evotec Group is involved in COVID R&D - a global crowdsourcing initiative aimed at accelerating the supply of therapeutics and vaccines against COVID-19. "As part of this initiative, we will lead the 'pre-clinical repurposing' working group to develop  approaches from the consortium or external sources into compounds," the company said. Evotec is part of the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) initiative, a public-private partnership led by the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH), which prioritizes vaccine and drug development. This is done by accelerating clinical trials and co-ordinating regulations to respond rapidly to future pandemics.

Basic research and diagnostics at Bernhard-Nocht-Institute

Reliable diagnoses are crucial to the response. The renowned Bernhard-Nocht-Institut für Tropenmedizin (BNITM) is Germany's largest institution for tropical medicine and emerging infectious diseases and was the first laboratory in Hamburg to establish molecular diagnostics. A collaboration with the biotechnology company Altona diagnostics led to a certified real-time PCR kit. "Meantime, we have also developed our own test procedure with which serum antibodies can be detected. This allows us to determine retrospectively whether an infection has occurred," said Professor Egbert Tannich, Chairman of the Board of BNITM.

Pioneering research into SARS virus

The BNITM has BSL-3, BSL-4 laboratories i.e. the highest biological security levels, at which scientists cultivate highly pathogenic viruses for research. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, the virologists Professor Christian Drosten and Professor Stephan Günther identified the SARS coronavirus and established a rapid diagnostic test system for which they were awarded the Federal Cross of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz), Germany's only federal decoration. At present, the Fraunhofer IME ScreeningPort is researching active substances against SARS-CoV-2 bases in in vivo models as part of the joint  IVADAC project. "We are conducting research into live objects and giving small rodents a human immune system. They are then infected so that we can evaluate newly-identified IME active substances against SARS-CoV-2," said Tannich. As part of other research efforts, the BNITM and the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) are conducting clinical studies to improve the treatment of patients suffering from the novel coronavirus. Participants are welcome!

UKE's diverse research approaches

A large number of scientists across UKE's research divisions are working feverishly on coronavirus. "Their research helps generate new findings, for instance, about the genomics of the virus, how it acts inside the body, the course of the disease and treatment options for COVID-19 or developing a vaccine. In the coming months, a number of other scientific publications will be released. Their factual bases will help us to assess the corona situation and successfully control it," said Professor Dr. Blanche Schwappach-Pignataro, Dean of the Medical Faculty and member of UKE's Board of Directors.

Antikörpertest Corona
© Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE)
coronavirus antibody test

Contagion among people of Hamburg 

The Hamburg City Health Study (HCHS) is focusing keenly on COVID-19 at present. As part of its efforts, it is conducting a broad-based study into the level of immunity in Hamburg from April 2020 to December 2021. Hopes are now high that an overview of "silent" infections i.e. without symptoms can be gained in Hamburg. "The HCHS study is the world's largest local health study. It offers a unique platform for gaining knowledge of the novel coronavirus using the example of a cohort that has been determined in a strictly representative manner and is known in all its medical and social details," said Katharina Fegebank, Senator for Science, Research and Equality. "HCHS gives us an opportunity to monitor the development of the virus in a big city and to gain initial findings in a short time. These can be crucial to political decisions."

Identifying possible active substances at DESY

Apart from basic research and developing a vaccine, tests of effective drugs are also going full speed ahead at the German Electron Synchrotron DESY. There, the PETRA III X-ray light source has allowed a team of researchers to find several potential active substances that bind a key coronavirus protein, which may yet form the basis for a cure. Stopping the spread of the virus in its host's body is essential. "Viruses cannot replicate on their own. To do so, they hijack their host's cells, introduce their own genetic material into the cells and cause them to produce new viruses. Proteins play an important role in all these steps. If we succeed in blocking a key protein, we may be able to disrupt reproduction and beat the infection," according to a report published on April 23, 2020.

PETRA III Corona-Experiment
© DESY, Heiner Müller-Elsner
PETRA III corona experiment

PETRA III presenting structure of proteins

The three-dimensional spatial structure of proteins can be presented with atomic precision using PETRA III.  Researchers have already used it to examine several thousand active substances for treating other diseases and to learn whether and how they dock onto proteins that reproduce the virus. "Thanks to automated data analysis, we were able to identify 13 active substances that bind the proteins," said Alke Meents, a researcher at DESY. The team now hopes to come up with a remedy even faster as the development of a drug to its approval can take several years. By resorting to approved active substances or ones being tested to treat humans beings, months or even years could be saved. The work involves researchers at the Universities of Hamburg and Lübeck, the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology, the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz Center Berlin and DESY.

End of coronavirus?

SARS-CoV-2 has triggered a pandemic of enormous proportions and with unprecedented consequences. But will mankind have to become used to such situations? "Other infectious diseases will emerge, but nobody can predict when," said Tannich. Such a scenario may unfold in three to five years or perhaps in 20 or 50 years. "And it might be a local epidemic and not necessarily a pandemic, but the important thing is that we are prepared."