Tackling Coronavirus

Harvard University scientists to collaborate with Chinese colleagues on development of novel coronavirus therapies, improved diagnostics

photo of high-throughput screening equipment

High-throughput equipment in the HMS ICCB-Longwood Screening Facility. Image: Sam Ogden

Since its identification in December, the novel coronavirus has quickly evolved into a global threat, taking a toll on human health, overwhelming vulnerable health care systems and destabilizing economies worldwide.

To address these challenges, Harvard University scientists will join forces with colleagues from China on a quest to develop therapies that would prevent new infections and design treatments that would alleviate existing ones.

The U.S. efforts will be spearheaded by scientists at Harvard Medical School, led by Dean George Q. Daley, working alongside colleagues from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Harvard Medical School will serve as the hub that brings together the expertise of basic scientists, translational investigators and clinical researchers working throughout the medical school and its affiliated hospitals and institutes, along with other regional institutions and biotech companies.

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The Chinese efforts will be led by Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health and Nanshan Zhong, a renowned pulmonologist and epidemiologist. Zhong is also head of the Chinese 2019n-CoV Expert Taskforce and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Through a five-year collaborative research initiative, Harvard University and Guangzhou Institute for Respiratory Health will share $115 million in research funding provided by China Evergrande Group, a Fortune Global 500 company in China.

“We are confident that the collaboration of Harvard and Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health will contribute valuable discoveries to this worldwide effort,” said Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow. “We are grateful for Evergrande’s leadership and generosity in facilitating this collaboration and for all the scientists and clinicians rising to the call of action in combating this emerging threat to global well-being.”

“Evergrande is honored to have the opportunity to contribute to the fight against this global public health threat,” said Hui Ka Yan, chair of the China Evergrande Group. “We thank all the scientists who responded so swiftly and enthusiastically from the Harvard community and are deeply moved by Harvard and Dr. Zhong’s team’s dedication and commitment to this humanitarian cause. We have the utmost confidence in this global collaborative team to reach impactful discoveries against the outbreak soon.”

While formal details of the collaboration are being finalized, the overarching goal of the effort is to elucidate the basic biology of the virus and its behavior and to inform disease detection and therapeutic design. The main areas of investigation will include:

  • Rapid, more accurate diagnostic tests , including point-of-care testing
  • Understanding the body’s immune response and host-pathogen interaction , including identification of biomarkers that can help monitor the infection course and disease progression and forecast the onset of critical illness and life-threatening complications among infected patients
  • Vaccines to prevent infection
  • Antiviral therapies that shorten the duration of the illness and mitigate symptoms among those infected
  • Treatments for those with severe disease

“With the extraordinary scale and depth of relevant clinical and scientific capabilities in our community, Harvard Medical School is uniquely positioned to convene experts in virology, infectious disease, structural biology, pathology, vaccine development, epidemiology and public health to confront this rapidly evolving crisis,” Daley said. “Harnessing our science to tackle global health challenges is at the very heart of our mission as an institution dedicated to improving human health and well-being worldwide.”

“We are extremely encouraged by the generous gesture from Evergrande to coordinate and support the collaboration and by the overwhelmingly positive response from our Harvard colleagues,” said Zhong, who in 2003 identified another novel pathogen, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus and described the clinical course of the infection.

“We look forward to leveraging each of our respective strengths to address the immediate and longer-term challenges and a fruitful collaboration to advance the global well-being of all people,” Zhong added.

Harvard University Provost Alan M. Garber said outbreaks of novel infections can move quickly, with a deadly effect.

“This means the response needs to be global, rapid and driven by the best science. We believe that the partnership—which includes Harvard and its affiliated institutions, other regional and U.S.-based organizations and Chinese researchers and clinicians at the front lines—offers the hope that we will soon be able to contain the threat of this novel virus,” Garber said. “The lessons we learn from this outbreak should enable us to respond to infectious disease emergencies more quickly and effectively in the future.”