1) How University of Helsinki can help in the current situation?
University of Helsinki is part of the international scientific community that is stepping up to find solutions to the many challenges the pandemic raises. UH is actively involved in collaborative networks of experts working on various aspects of the pandemic in Finland, and providing expertise and information for decision making. We have research facilities and expertise that enables the use of innovative approaches to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
2) Do we develop immunity to SARS-CoV-2? How long-lasting is the immunity?
Yes, but since we are dealing with a novel virus, we don’t know how long the immunity lasts. One of our research aims is to characterize immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, including the longevity of immunity.
3) Why does SARS-CoV-2 cause severe symptoms for some people while most get only mild symptoms?
Elderly people and those with underlying health conditions are in higher risk of developing severe symptoms. Other risk factors include for example gender, daily smoking and morbid obesity. Genetic factors can also influence the individual progression of the disease. Understanding the mechanisms of disease severity will help in development of treatment and patient care.
4) Why is it so difficult to develop a vaccine?
Vaccine development is a time-consuming process. First, one must understand the SARS-CoV-2 characteristics in the host (humans), and study how the virus induces immunity. The safety and efficacy of potential vaccines is demonstrated in multiple steps in animal models, followed by clinical trials in people. All steps have their challenges and all steps take time.
5) What is the difference between PCR tests and serological tests?
A RT-PCR based test detects the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in the patient as a sign of acute infection. A serological test will measure the antibodies developed against SARS-CoV-2, as a sign of recent or past infection. Patients who have recovered from Covid-19 or have had the infection without realizing it (mild symptoms or asymptomatic), can be identified by a serological test.
6) How will sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 genome help us?
Genome analysis will allow us to assess the diversity of viruses in Finland, track transmission chains and geographic spread (including possible re-introductions of the virus in the future). Data on virus genomes can be linked to travel history, residence and, in case of transmission clusters, to person-to-person contact information (etc. family, work place, nursing home). Collecting detailed information about viral genomes will also be key to the development of effective diagnostic tests, potential therapeutics, and ultimately a vaccine.
Dept of Virology has produced data from >50 virus genomes obtained from HUS. Until early March, there was no evidence of genome clustering making it likely that all (or most) infections had been imported. From the second week of March onwards, there is clear evidence of local transmission. Now, the researchers from the department of virology are joining forces with the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) and with the Institute of Biotechnology (BI) and scaling up the sequencing effort to all available samples.
7) What causes the severe pulmonary complications associated with Covid-19?
The general view is that Covid-19 is an immune-mediated disease. The aberrantly strong reaction of the human immune system against the infection is exemplified by massively elevated production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, referred to as “cytokine storm”. In fact, one candidate treatment option for Covid-19 is immunosuppressive drugs, for instance those that block the inflammatory effects of cytokines. However, more research is still needed to establish a detailed understanding of the immune-mediated pathogenesis of Covid-19, and to create treatment options that would specifically target key immune pathways involved in disease development. Researchers at UH are striving towards understanding the relationship between the severity of Covid-19 and the human immune response by collecting patient blood samples during the acute stage of the disease and analyzing them for different immunological biomarkers.
8) Can we prevent viral entry to the host cells with some drugs?
Humans typically produce antibodies against infecting viruses that block further virus infection and results in virus clearance. The newly developed antibody-producing cells then remain in the body for extended periods of time, and act as the basis of protective immunity against later infections with the same virus. When produced in large scale outside human body, these antibodies can be exploited as therapeutic tools. Three research groups with various backgrounds and expertise at UH are currently collaborating first to isolate virus-specific antibody producing cells from patients that have recovered from Covid-19, next to extract the genetic information needed to clone that specific antibody and finally to produce in large scale using recombinant technology.
Many viruses like influenza and corona viruses grab surface proteins of the host organisms’ (like humans) cells to enter and infect these cells. The coronavirus spike proteins, which make the “crown” of these viruses as seen in pictures, are cut by certain proteases on the surface of the lung cells to facilitate viral entry. One these proteases is called TMPRSS2. Researchers in Medical Faculty, Unversity of Helsinki are now investigating the possibilities to block this protease and its close relatives by certain drug molecules as a strategy to inhibit cell infection by SARS-COV-2.