April 13, 2021

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues, scientists at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WiNPRC) have kept their focus on the tiniest shifts in the virus’ genetic material.

Beginning with the first known case of the virus in Wisconsin in February 2020, researchers in the WiNPRC’s Global Infectious Disease Division have been sequencing the genomes of as many virus samples as they can process, reading each letter of genetic code.

It’s critical to expand virus genome sequencing across the U.S. as COVID-19 shifts and evolves, sometimes into more contagious variants. The more people the virus infects, the more likely genetic mutations will happen.

“The current estimate is that it makes one of those mistakes — a mutation — for about every two new people infected,” says Thomas Friedrich, WiNPRC scientist and University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine professor. As different viruses take various paths to infect more people over time, he adds, they accumulate different combinations of mutations. Researchers can use those combinations like fingerprints to track how different lineages of the virus spread through space and time.

Drawing samples from patients in Dane County and nearby Milwaukee County, Friedrich and WiNPRC colleague David O’Connor, UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health professor, have sequenced viruses from more than 3,200 infections. Their most pressing concern is keeping watch for virus variants believed to be more adept at infecting people or possibly carrying mutations that make vaccines and common treatments less effective. They post surveillance results online as soon as sequences are complete.

Nationally, fewer than 0.5 percent of all viruses have been sequenced. In Dane County, the researchers have sequenced 5 percent of all cases, a figure that represents their decades of experience and their work at WiNPRC to stay ahead of global HIV, influenza and Zika virus pandemics.

A coordinated sequencing system in the U.S. could help end this pandemic and the next. “You will see a benefit for HIV, for influenza, for whatever comes along,” O’Connor says. “You want to be able to track which viruses are circulating because it will save lives.”

Note: The UW–Madison researchers received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s SPHERES program (Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology, and Surveillance), Fast Grants (a group of nonprofits and private donors) and the Wisconsin Partnership Program. 

December 15, 2020

Research with animals is crucial to improving human and animal health. Animals in research provide unique insights not available with other scientific models, and they help scientists determine safety and effectiveness of preventions, treatments and cures. During the COVID-19 pandemic, animals in research have been especially important in accelerating the development COVID-19 vaccines as well as better diagnostics and additional treatment options.

At the NPRCs, we’re helping fill a critical role in halting COVID-19 by leading NIH-funded studies at our centers. We’re also participating in the public-private partnership ACTIV (Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines) to develop treatments and vaccines by sharing our knowledge, resources and animals, including conducting preclinical studies with NPRC monkeys for some of the leading industry vaccine candidates.

Scientific collaboration is especially important during a pandemic when time is of the essence and, in this case, animal resources are limited. At the onset of the pandemic, monkey importation was halted, putting increasing demands on the NPRC animal colonies, which were already limited in quantity and availability. The NPRCs account for only 1 in every 5 nonhuman primates (NHPs) used in U.S.-based research, so the limited supply at a time of high demand impacts NPRC COVID-related studies as well as pre-pandemic studies under way at the NPRCs and those in planning stages.

The NPRCs remain dedicated to our other areas of study, including research into HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, the neurosciences, cardiovascular and respiratory health, genetics and transplant medicine. 

We are also committed to meeting the future needs of animals for NIH-funded research. This is why the NPRCs support establishing a strategic reserve of NHPs to be used in times of national health crises. We are already growing our on-site breeding colonies when time, space and funding permit, strategically assigning animals to research protocols, harmonizing across centers for efficient use of animals and increasing rigor and reproducibility to facilitate collaboration and consistency across research labs. These strategic steps now further position the NPRCs for the translation of our research advancements from cell and animal models to humans, and are indicative of our commitment to help people across generations and the world live longer, healthier lives. 

To learn more about the NPRCs’ ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19, visit this page.

Editor’s Note, 2/22/21: The New York Times covered the research monkey shortage in today’s issue. Read the story here.

November 24, 2020

Talking about animals in research may not be part of everyday conversations – unless you work in research, are learning more about it or want to stop it. But if everyone knew how critical animals have been in 2020 to fast-track a safe and effective COVID-19 (coronavirus) vaccine, would that change?

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) called upon the National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) – as NIH has for HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika and other infectious disease threats – to identify animal species for studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus and developing safe and effective vaccines to block it.

The NPRCs went to work and within a few months had discovered how valuable nonhuman primate models (NHPs), especially macaques, are for studying SARS-CoV-2. The NPRCs found the virus infects rhesus, pigtail and cynomolgus macaques, so these animals were included in research programs that resulted in several vaccine candidates in the pipeline by summer’s end. In addition, other key models for SARS-CoV-2, such as mice and hamsters, contributed to the broadening knowledge of how best to tackle the disease in humans. This rapid pace of discovery was possible due to the NPRC researchers applying their expertise fighting other viruses, especially HIV/AIDS.

As with those other viruses, the NPRC researchers closely studied SARS-CoV-2 transmission routes and pathogenesis – this time focusing on the respiratory virus’ activity in the lungs and its impact on cells, tissues and organs. The researchers also conducted detailed genetic studies on the virus to help pharmaceutical researchers use pieces of the virus’ genetic code to fashion vaccine candidates and test them for safety and effectiveness in macaques.

Translating the biomedical research findings into the human population requires going from up to a few dozen monkeys in research to thousands of human volunteers in clinical trials; for COVID-19, more than 200,000 volunteers have enrolled in four promising clinical trials. As announced in November 2020, the Moderna and Pfizer mRNA vaccines tested on rhesus macaques were more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in widespread (Phase 3) human clinical trials and are now on track for emergency FDA approval.

Research with animals connects these vaccines with other SARS-CoV-2 scientific advancements just as it has made connections among NPRC HIV/AIDS studies, the results from which facilitated the rapid pace to COVID-19 discoveries. Improving human and animal health – that’s what NPRC research with animals does, and that’s worth talking about any day.

Learn more about research with animals scientific advancements here.

August 24, 2020

Note: The NPRCs will update this blog with our latest COVID-19 news.

Since beginning COVID-19 research in early 2020, NPRC researchers have made encouraging progress in efforts to better understand, diagnose, prevent and treat this novel disease. We’re committed to conducting and enabling research to end this global pandemic and to providing information so the public has ready access to our scientific results.

Our most recent COVID-19 news includes: 

  • April 13, 2021: Wisconsin NPRC scientists explore the shifts in the genetic material of COVID-19 to expand the viral genome sequence
  • February 25, 2021: Southwest NPRC helps people understand COVID-19 variants in this TX Biobytes podcast with virologist Dr. Jean Patterson
  • February 23, 2021: The New York Times features NPRC COVID-19 research in this story (Note: may require log in)

Below is even more information about our extensive and collaborative COVID-19 research:

Diagnostics:

Prevention:

Treatments:

Additional NPRC COVID-19 News:

Bookmark this page so you can easily return here for the latest NPRC COVID-19 research information. We’ve also compiled a list of resources here and provided links to previous NPRC COVID-19 news and national media stories here.

April 2, 2020

In the midst of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, scientists at the National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) have initiated research programs to better understand and diagnose as well as develop potential treatments and vaccines for the disease. NPRC animal colonies will be key in moving SARS-CoV-2 infection/COVID-19 research from cell models to studies in whole living systems so researchers can determine treatment safety and effectiveness.

Since the virus began to spread at the end of 2019, more than 3 million people have been infected worldwide as of April 28, 2020, with numbers growing daily. The coordinated efforts of the scientific community will be crucial to slow the spread of COVID-19, lower the risk of transmission and treat those who have the disease.

NPRC COVID-19 Research

Several of the NPRCs have made public announcements that research is under way, including California NPRC, Southwest NPRC, Tulane NPRC and Wisconsin NPRC. Others, including Oregon, Washington and Yerkes NPRCs, are also beginning research, and Oregon and Yerkes are accepting applications for COVID-19 pilot projects, which facilitate research collaborations and provide important preliminary data.

California NPRC researchers have already isolated, characterized and cultured COVID-19 from a patient treated at UC Davis, the first community-acquired case in the U.S. Next, they plan to make diagnostic tests in-house.

The Southwest NPRC scientists are proposing research projects to establish a nonhuman primate model to study the development and transmission of the disease, test new detection methods and partner with others in the scientific community.

At Tulane NPRC, researchers plan to create a nonhuman primate model to study the disease’s clinical progression, how it is transmitted through the air and how it specifically affects aging populations. The scientists are aiming to answer many questions, including why older individuals are more susceptible to complications and death from COVID-19.

In Wisconsin NPRC researchers have developed a coalition of scientists to combat the disease, drawing heavily from their firsthand experience during the Zika virus outbreak in 2016.

Yerkes NPRC researchers have begun initial research, and the center’s goals include understanding immunity and antibody response to SARS-CoV-2, and developing diagnostics, key reagents, antiviral therapies and vaccines.

COVID-19 Research Safety

The NPRCs are well-positioned to conduct SARS-CoV-2 infection/COVID-19 research because of our expertise in infectious diseases and collaborations internally at each NPRC as well as across NPRCs and with colleagues worldwide. Also, we can conduct such research safely in our Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) facilities specifically designed to keep personnel, the research and the environment safe. Examples of BSL3 safety features include additional training and oversight for employees, directional air flow and filtered ventilation systems, and specialty equipment to contain the virus isolates used in the research and to decontaminate the lab space and research equipment and supplies.

News Stories about NPRC COVID-19 Research

Recent news articles by STAT News, Bloomberg, The Scientist and ABC News provide more information about the NPRC studies and the critical role of research with animals.

As we have more information to share about NPRC COVID-19 research, we’ll post information at NPRC.org/news and tweet from @NPRCnews. In the meantime, here are a few helpful COVID-19 resources we’re following.

 

March 21, 2020

At the NPRCs, our focus is conducting research and caring for our irreplaceable animal colonies so we can help people and animals live healthier lives. In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we are prioritizing our research to focus on developing diagnostics, preventions and treatments for this novel disease.

As we work to combat this health crisis, we also want to help keep you informed about the latest developments. Below are some of the resources we are following. These organizations are on the front lines of combatting COVID-19 and are frequently sharing crucial information regarding public health, personal guidelines and coronavirus research.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html

World Health Organization
www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

National Institutes of Health
https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus

In addition, we want to provide resources to help address any mental health and emotional well-being concerns COVID-19 brings for you and your loved ones:

CDC’s Recommendations for Managing Anxiety and Stress
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/managing-stress-anxiety.html

National Alliance on Mental Illness
https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI/NAMI-News/2020/NAMI-Updates-on-the-Coronavirus

Just for Kids: A Comic Exploring the New Coronavirus
https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/28/809580453/just-for-kids-a-comic-exploring-the-new-coronavirus

The NPRCs are working closely with our collaborators worldwide to address COVID-19. Look for updates from us at NPRC.org and @NPRCnews.

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