Research

COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) OVERVIEW OF VIR­O­LO­GY RESEARCH  

  • Development of COVID-19-diagnostics. Identification of COVID-19 cases needs to be fast and broad to identify and isolate infected people. Multiple testing approaches are currently under development. 
  • Development and testing of antivirals. Both known and new molecules are screened for their potential to treat COVID-19 patients. The first clinical trials are starting in Helsinki. 
  • Development of vaccines. 
  • To follow virus evolution by molecular epidemiology. Genomes of SARS-CoV-2 strains of Finnish patients are sequenced in order to produce evolutionary information.

Covid-19 TESTING & ONGOING RESEARCH ACTIV­IT­IES

A. Virus tests: de­tection of in­fec­ted people

Societal impact: Enables isolation of infected people, which helps to stop virus spreading. 

Lead: Olli Vapalahti / Tarja Sironen / Eili Huhtamo, Dept. Virology 

Goal: Increase the capacity of Finland for virus tests 

Collaborators: Dept. Virology, FIMM 

Comments: Vapalahti/Sironen/Huhtamo laboratory aims at studying and developing inactivation processes and alternative testing methods. Markus Vähä-Koskela (FIMM) maps availability of BSL2/3 labs in Meilahti. Pirkko Mattila/ Maija Puhka (FIMM) map RNA extraction capacity, Outi Monni (Faculty of Medicine)/Petri Auvinen (Institute of Biotechnology) map PCR capacity.  Pre- and post-analytics are main bottlenecks. It is essential to ensure that testing resources (sampling equipment, reagents, etc.) are strategically and socially targeting the right activities in terms of controlling the pandemic.

B. Ser­o­lo­gical tests: de­tection of people who already have pro­tect­ive an­ti­bod­ies against SARS-CoV-2-virus

Societal impact: Mapping the spread of the pandemic (number of infected people) and already recovered patients – a reliable indicator of immunity. Could help to identify people who can go back to work.

Lead: Jussi Hepojoki / Tarja Sironen / Olli Vapalahti, Dept. Virology

Goal: Increase the testing capacity of serological tests of COVID-19 in Finland, and develop reliable serological tests in order to indicate immunity. 

Further information 

C. Drug development 1

Societal impact: New drugs to treat COVID-19-patients reduces deaths and need of ICU 

Lead: Anu Kantele (HUS, UH) / Olli Vapalahti and Suvi Kuivanen (Dept. Virology), Päivi Tammela / Vilja Pietiäinen (FIMM)

Goals: Find new molecules to treat COVID-19-infection and to test existing drugs used for other purposes in clinical trials.

Collaborators: FIMM, HUS, University of Tarto (Denis Kainov, Tambet Teesalu); Dept of Pharmacy, European Cell-Based Assay Interest Group.

Drug development 2

Societal impact: New drugs to treat COVID-19-patients reduces deaths and need of ICU 

Lead: Päivi Saavalainen (Fac. Med.) / Tomas Strandin (Dept. VIrology) / Ville Paavilainen (BI, Viikki)

Goals: To clone human monoclonal antibodies from COVID-19 recoveree cells

Collaborators: HUS, VTT, FIMM, SPR

Comment: Human monoclonal antibodies are also applicable as tools in rapid antigen tests. Awaiting production of monoclonals, it is important to organize the collection of plasma and hyperimmunoglobulin samples from recoverees.

Drug de­vel­op­ment 3

Societal impact: Identification and development of protease inhibitors to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 entry

Lead: Juha Klefström (Research Programs Unit, CAN-PRO)

Goals: Identify, validate and repurpose serine protease inhibitors for inhibition of SARS-CoV-2 entry into human lung epithelial cells.

Collaborators: HY, UEF

Comments: Human trials with a TMPRSS2 inhibitor were started weeks after publication showing that a class of small molecule inhibitors interfere with SARS-CoV-2 cellular entry. There is urgent need for safe and clinically already tested drugs which could be imminently repurposed as antivirals.

Vaccine development 4

Lead: Vincenzo Cerullo

Goal: Development of a prophylactic and therapeutic vaccine for SARS-COV-2 and go to clinical use.

Collaborators: VALO therapeutics, Reithera

Comments: We aim to use non-human adenoviruses encoding for SARS-COV-2 structural proteins to elicit antibodies response and coated with MHC-I-restricted peptides from non-structural proteins to boost the T cell response.

D. Using hu­man ge­net­ics to un­der­stand the individual progress of COVID-19-disease 

Societal impact: To support drug and vaccine development. To study whether some persons have genetically a higher risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19-infection.

Lead:  Mark Daly and Andrea Ganna (FIMM) / Samuli Ripatti (FIMM) /Markus Perola (THL) 

Goals: To identify possible genetic differences between people having severe vs. mild symptoms

Comment: Global consortium with more than 1000 researchers working together, called COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, established by Andrea Ganna and Mark Daly.  All results made publicly available regularly. Other ongoing studies in Finland: COVIDprog (led by Markus Perola/THL) and GeneRISK (led by Samuli Ripatti, FIMM)

Collaborators: FIMM, THL, Mehiläinen, Health Care Districts, International partners.

Further information 

E. Virus sequencing and analysis

Societal impact: Helps to follow virus transmission chains (local vs. imported infections) and to estimate the prevalence of the virus, to quantify the degree to which social distancing efforts are slowing the transmission, potential to detect possible clinically relevant changes in virus genome.

Lead: Teemu Smura, Ravi Kant (Dept. Virology), Pekka Ellonen (FIMM), Lars Paulin, Petri Auvinen (Institute of Biotechnology)

Goals:  To trace the transmission chains and geographical spread of the virus, estimate the extent of virus transmission in the Finnish population and detect functionally significant changes in the virus (antigenic drift and pathogenetic determinants).

Collaborators: Dept.Virology, FIMM, Institute of Biotechnology

Comment: In Finland, virus sequencing has been developed at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Virology by Professor Olli Vapalahti’s research unit specialised in viral zoonoses, where coronavirus sequencing has been carried out ever since the first Covid-19 diagnosis. Since autumn 2020, these efforts have been supported by the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM). As the new, more transmissible coronavirus variants have arrived in Finland, UH started to sequence about 1000 SARS-CoV-2 sequences weekly (Read more). Most of these sequences are submitted to GISAID.

Further information:

Press release 8.4.2020: Open sesame coronavirus - researchers map the SARS-CoV-2 virus genome
News article 27.1.2021: Sequencing adapted from research use to monitoring the coronavirus pandemic

F. Platforms to exchange expertise, material, facilities, equipment and personnel 

Impact: Get together different expertise in order to develop new study ideas and establishment of effective collaborations, and to test hypotheses

Lead: Ravi Kant, Tarja Sironen (Dept. Virology), Pirta Hotulainen (Minerva), Katja Kivinen and Vilja Pietiäinen (FIMM)

Goal: To create a platform for exchange of equipment, reagents, expertise, personnel. To enable efficient core-like use of UH biosafety-level 3 laboratories for infectious virus work to increase research output. 

Comment: HUS has requested that all interested to volunteer contact rekrytointi@hus.fi . 

G. Communication and effort facilitation, problem solving 

Societal impact: Get all efforts to work, bring researchers' view to decision making

Lead: Pirta Hotulainen (Minerva), Mari Kaunisto (FIMM), Tarja Sironen, Ravi Kant, Olli Vapalahti (Dept. virology)

Comment: Pirta Hotulainen leads coordination and communication with the government, Tarja Sironen, Olli Vapalahti, Andrea Ganna and others give interviews, Ravi Kant and Mari Kaunisto work in collaboration with the University´s communication team.

H. Socio-economic and policy analysis

Societal impact: To provide science-based advice for managing the accumulation of multi-hazard risks from crisis decisions in pandemics 

Lead: Janne I. Hukkinen, Sakari Kuikka

Goal: To provide probabilistic estimates of COVID19 policy on health and socio-economic risks, and to improve multi-level crisis governance with a diagnosis of the cascades of socio-environmental impacts of the pandemic.

Collaborators: Ongoing planning with THL, UEF, Aalto, U Tampere, U Turku, BIOS

Comments: In addition to policy advice, we aim to reveal the challenges of value-laden policy decisions to the whole society: What are the trade-offs when we aim for specific outcomes?