Tuberculosis, malaria and the Ebola, West Nile and Zika viruses. Aside from being among the most lethal infectious diseases on the planet, they share another commonality - studies on nonhuman primates accelerated their treatment and prevention.
Here in Louisiana, the Tulane National Primate Research Center (TNPRC) in Covington has made major contributions in research to combat infectious diseases for nearly 60 years. When COVID-19 arrived in the United States, it was no surprise health experts turned to TNPRC.
The center is one of seven National Primate Research Centers funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It’s also one of the largest and the only one equipped with a Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, a highly specialized facility with a high capacity for safely studying emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19 in nonhuman primates.
Because of its capability to meet the high level of biocontainment required to study an emerging infectious disease like COVID-19, TNPRC was among the first research facilities in the country to obtain approval from the Centers for Disease Control to receive virus samples.
"There are very few places in the country that have the facilities and the expertise that we do," said Dr. Jay Rappaport, the center's director. “It’s important for us to remain nimble in our research so that we are able to respond quickly to outbreaks like this that need immediate understanding.”
In the spring of 2020, TNPRC received a three-year, $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study COVID-19.
The initial research afforded by the grant focuses on a nonhuman primate study that more clearly defines the characteristics of the disease. Using this information, researchers are determining which COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are safe and effective.
The range of biological responses to COVID-19 is incredibly wide. We know relatively little about the intricacies of the disease — like why some infections result in mild disease, while others experience severe complications or death.
TNRPC immunologist Dr. Monica Vaccari received a Fast Grant award of $100,000 to study immune responses to COVID-19 in a nonhuman primate model. By studying the early events leading to the over-activation of the immune system, Dr. Vaccari sought to identify methods to reduce disease severity and prevent the virus’s deadly effects.
“Some of the early immune responses that activate in response to the virus may actually be detrimental to the body rather than protective,” Vaccari said. “We need to identify and study what is detrimental and what is protective to inform the development of targeted therapeutics and maximally effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2."
Vaccari’s subsequent research determined that contrary to what might be expected, a robust initial immune response in the four weeks following infection resulted in more severe disease outcomes in nonhuman primates.
Dr. Tracy Fischer also received a Fast Grant to investigate the major organ systems implicated in COVID-19 in a nonhuman primate model, which has led to a subsequent investigation on the disease’s long-term effect on brain tissue, particularly in the absence of severe disease.
According to Fischer, understanding how COVID-19 contributes to neurological disease is needed for appropriate treatment of infected patients, as well as for relevant follow-up care after recovery. Fast Grants like the ones received by Dr. Vacarri and Dr. Fischer are unusual in their speed – as they are awarded within 48 hours of application in order to get funding to researchers as quickly as possible.
As drugmakers bring the first vaccines to market, research at TNPRC will continue to be part of the effort to perfect its effectiveness.