Purdue scientists key in state’s battle against COVID variants, future viral threats

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University is at the forefront of Indiana’s fight against the spread of COVID-19 variants and remains uniquely able to assist should the pandemic surge or change course in the weeks, months or years ahead.

“When challenges like this arise, Purdue steps in,” said Willie Reed, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and head of the vaccine task force. “The combination of scientific and engineering excellence makes us stand out from the crowd. We have STEM expertise, including a world-class veterinary medical school, biomedical researchers and more. People from all areas of the university have stepped up as we knew they would, using their expertise and willingness to immediately apply their knowledge to this worldwide challenge.”

Tracking the genetics of a virus or any disease gives scientists insights into how it is moving through a community and allows them to take steps to slow the spread. Comparing genomics also can help scientists understand how the variant is responding to vaccinations, as well as other anti-infectious measures including masks, quarantines, social distancing, intensive cleaning and other procedures.

At the start of the pandemic, Purdue’s Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (ADDL) expanded from focusing solely on veterinary issues to include human COVID samples. It has performed 180,000 tests in that time, while the on-campus Carpi Lab switched from sequencing malaria to COVID. They remain among the only labs in Indiana actively seeking, detecting and sequencing variants, including B.1.1.7.

“These assets, along with a desire to serve our community and solve problems, are what make us unique in the state. This is what elite research universities do, and it stems from Purdue’s land-grand mission,” said David Broecker, head of the Protect Purdue Implementation Team. 

Since January, Dr. Giovanna Carpi’s lab has sequenced and studied about 200 complete viral genomes, including variants that can be screened by testing. Carpi, an assistant professor of biological sciences who focuses primarily on malaria, is now working with the ADDL and Protect Purdue Health Center to track the novel coronavirus in the Purdue community and throughout the state of Indiana. The information she gathers helps inform policymakers, ensuring that city, state and university leaders have the best and most accurate, up-to-date information possible.

“The work my lab is doing has been critical. The Indiana state health department has sent us samples because we can do the work for them faster than the CDC labs can,” Carpi said. “We do this kind of tracking all the time for malaria. We are the only lab in Indiana – along with our partners at the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory – to be able to switch overnight to studying the SARS-CoV-2 genome. I have an amazing lab team, and we have been able to adapt with a very fast turnaround time.”

The ability to detect and sequence has enabled the Protect Purdue team to adjust testing plans and isolation and quarantine measures while also better informing state leaders.

“When you see the CDC variant data, all of it comes out of Tippecanoe County,” said Dr. Scott Stienecker, infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and member of the medical advisory team. “That’s because Purdue is the only place doing this type of testing and sequencing.”

Carpi and her lab are part of the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease, which works across disciplines to advance the treatment and understanding of infectious diseases, cancer and chronic inflammatory conditions. 

Richard Kuhn, Purdue’s Trent and Judith Anderson Distinguished Professor in Science, and the Krenicki Family Director of the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease, said monitoring for variants of infectious diseases is important. 

“If a pathogen changes so that antibodies are no longer effective — which microbiologists call an escape mutant — we need to be able to detect that. It’s one of many reasons why the work being done at PI4D is so important to not just Indiana but to the world,” he said.

Kuhn has been invited to share his expertise and address the National Vaccine Advisory Committee on COVID variants in June.“Beyond the current pandemic, Purdue researchers are also working on new programs and systems to deal with future outbreaks. We are harnessing data science and artificial intelligence to rapidly identify new pathogens and then to search databases of known protein targets and potential drugs to quickly address an outbreak.”