At the Forefront of Global Efforts to Combat Coronavirus

March 5, 2020

The Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health has launched a research initiative to develop rapid and reliable tests to diagnose novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and to identify sources of transmission, particularly in individuals with the infection who have mild disease or are asymptomatic.

The virus has spread to more than 60 countries and presented health experts with urgent questions the scientific community is racing to solve. How contagious is the virus? How does it spread? Are there mild cases that are not being detected?

The Columbia research center, known as CII, has experience with such challenges. Under the direction of W. Ian Lipkin, John Snow professor of epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School, a CII research team introduced the first sensitive diagnostic test for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, and in 2014, and helped to identify the animal source for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus.

To augment CII’s efforts to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has issued laboratory samples of the live virus to the CII. Columbia is one of the few elite institutions to receive samples of the virus, which will be housed a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) laboratory at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus. No live virus research will take place on Morningside or any other Columbia campus.

The high-level containment laboratory is designed to handle microbes and infectious agents and protect lab personnel. In operation since 2003, the facility is certified and regularly inspected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. (Read the Coronavirus Research FAQ.) 

CII will work in close collaboration with Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Guangdong Province Center for Disease Control and Prevention to develop diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2. Scientists need the pathogen to probe the biology of the emerging infection and to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines.

“It’s a new virus. We don’t know much about it, and therefore we’re all concerned to make certain it doesn’t evolve into something even worse,” said Lipkin, who is also professor of neurology and pathology and cell biology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.  “We need to better understand modes of transmission, including critical questions about how long it can persist on surfaces, such as door handles and banisters, and how viable it is at various temperatures and humidity levels.”  

Lipkin returned in early February from China, where he had been advising the China CDC and preparing a formal report for the Chinese government. “Discussions with the Chinese scientists and leaders of the Ministry of Health and of Science and Technology led us to determine that an immediate challenge to controlling the outbreak is the lack of sensitive screening tools to identify who is infected and who is not,” said Lipkin, who also self-quarantined for 14 days at home upon his return.

“Most of our current focus is on developing diagnostic tests that can be used to determine who should be isolated and for how long, and to make decisions about drugs and antibodies that can be used even now to reduce the severity of illness and prevent deaths,” he said.  

SARS-CoV-2 is a member of the same coronavirus family as the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past and likely evolved from a virus that infected animal hosts to one that can spread from person to person. Since the virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, it has killed at least 3,000 people worldwide, the vast majority in mainland China. There have been more than 90,000 global cases with infections in every continent except Antarctica.

About Dr. W. Ian Lipkin and the Center for Infection and Immunity

The Center for Infection and Immunity is one of the world’s leading academic centers focused on microbial surveillance, discovery and diagnosis. In recent years, Lipkin and his team have helped to reduce the impact of numerous pathogens, including viruses that cause respiratory diseases, hemorrhagic fever or neurodevelopmental damage in humans, such as West Nile virus, SARS, MERS, Lujo, Ebola, Zika, and enterovirus D-68. They have advanced critical knowledge on wildlife reservoirs of emerging infectious diseases, pathogenic threats to food security, the role of the human microbiome in disease pathogenesis and the mechanisms of several diseases, including autism and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Lipkin, John Snow Professor of epidemiology, professor of neurology and pathology and cell biology, and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public health, has identified more than 1,500 novel viruses and is internationally recognized as an authority on the use of molecular methods for pathogen discovery. He assisted the WHO and the People’s Republic of China during the 2003 SARS outbreak and advises the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in addressing the challenge of MERS. In 2016, the Chinese government awarded him the country’s top science honor for foreign scientists, the International Science and Technology Cooperation Award, in recognition of his outstanding scientific and technological contributions to the country. In 2020, he was given an award of appreciation from the Chinese government as part of their 70th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China. Today, he continues to consult with the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Science and the Ministry of Health. He has also served as a consultant for a climate change program at Beijing Normal and as a visiting professor at Beijing University.