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Novel viruses specialist Prof Miguel Quinones-Mateu, who directs the university’s Webster Centre for Infectious Diseases, and Postdoctoral Fellow Rhodri Harfoot, also of the Otago microbiology and immunology department, are leading research involving the laboratory.
"New Zealand can’t wait for everything to be done overseas," principal investigator Prof Quinones-Mateu said.
New Zealand scientists working with overseas colleagues had "all the tools", including the laboratory, needed to tackle key questions about coronavirus biology and how to counter its rapid spread.
Venezuela-born Prof Quinones-Mateu is making use of the Otago department’s high security physical containment laboratory (PC3) — one of only about five in the country and the only one growing and directly working on the novel coronavirus.
He emphasised that a high degree of teamwork was involved in the research and about 20 research groups, both in New Zealand and abroad, would be working with Otago scientists in the research.
Subject to checking and confirmation, he believed that Otago scientists might have already isolated SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, after using samples from infected people.
Prof Quinones-Mateu said that many international research groups — many of them based on collaborations between industry and universities — were working on close to 100 different approaches to block the replication of the virus, "looking to cure people with Covid-19’’.
He also said about 50 different vaccine approaches were being tested, and at least two were already in clinical trials.
He acknowledged this was a busy research field, but he was confident that Otago scientists, working collaboratively with many other researchers, could still make a valuable contribution, both to the testing of potential drugs to counter the coronavirus,and also in studying a vaccine to protect against it.
The same group of researchers was also recently responsible for implementing a coronavirus test that was used to detect the first confirmed Covid-19 cases in Dunedin.
After implementing the Covid-19 test in collaboration with Associate Prof James Ussher, the focus now had shifted to isolating the virus.
"Once we have the virus, we will extract its ribonucleic acid [RNA], to provide positive controls for diagnosis in all clinical laboratories across the country.
"We also want to study the biology of the virus, and evaluate antiviral and vaccine strategies.
"It’s a bit like identifying everything in an engine so you know exactly how to make it work, or in our case, how to break or stop it," Prof Quinones-Mateu said.
The laboratory’s state-of-the-art containment allowed researchers to work with the actual viral agent causing this disease.
“Being virologists, and focusing on emergent viruses relevant to New Zealand, it was a no-brainer for our group to work with this virus.
"We can’t sit back and wait for others to do this very important job — we can and should be doing it here," Prof Quinones-Mateu said.