CAREER Q&A

On the front lines of the coronavirus-vaccine battle

Canadian virologist Alyson Kelvin raced across the country to begin a collaboration to develop vaccines against COVID-19.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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A woman in a full biohazard suit, photographed in black and white.

Alyson Kelvin in her containment lab.Credit: Danny Abriel

Infectious-disease researcher Alyson Kelvin jumped into action when she first learnt of an emerging pathogen in China. In February, she temporarily left her laboratory at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, to launch a collaboration with scientists at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization — International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac, or VIDO) in Saskatoon, Canada. She and her colleagues are now developing and testing vaccines against COVID-19.

What tipped you off that the new coronavirus was a noteworthy pathogen?

A 31 December e-mail from the International Society for Infectious Diseases in Brookline, Massachusetts, described 31 hospitalizations for viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China. It stood out to me that the pathogen was unidentified. In addition, the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee had advised hospitals to improve emergency plans to treat severe atypical pneumonia.

What did you do?

I contacted my dad, David Kelvin, who is also an infectious-disease researcher at Dalhousie, to alert him to what was going on. Then, on 7 January, I contacted Paul Hodgson, associate director of business development at VIDO. Along with VIDO’s lead corona virologist, Darryl Falzarano, we realized that we had complementary skills for studying this virus and developing vaccines against it. VIDO also has the containment, or biosafety-level-3 (BSL-3), laboratory necessary to do this work.

What are the primary goals of your research?

Darryl and I are each studying separate vaccine responses in ferrets. We look for signs of protection against SARS-CoV-2 — or of enhanced disease — when the animals encounter the virus. I will also study how earlier exposure to other viruses might affect the ferrets’ response to a COVID-19 infection. Previous studies found that some animals that were infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) after being vaccinated fared worse than those that had not been vaccinated.

One of our research priorities is to determine whether previous viral exposure plays a part in the development of a more severe case of COVID-19. Epidemiological reports show that older people who develop COVID-19 are more likely to die than younger people are. Is this because they have encountered many coronaviruses in their lifetime? Does immunity decline with age? We also want to look into reports that people who have recovered from COVID-19 can be reinfected with the virus.

How did your collaboration with VIDO evolve?

The first step was to get permits to work with a new virus. This is no easy task, but VIDO has expertise in securing such permits. We also tried to secure a sample of the virus from China, but that proved impossible. In less than two weeks, we wrote a grant proposal to submit to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, based in Ottawa, detailing our approach for studying COVID-19. Before we knew whether we would be awarded the grant, I left my family and went to VIDO with my graduate student and technician. We arrived on 25 February.

By then, Darryl had managed to get a sample of the virus — from the first case of COVID-19 identified in Canada — and was the first scientist in the country to isolate the virus and establish a protocol for growing it. Three days later, I had just exited VIDO’s BSL-3 lab after training when Darryl tapped on the window to tell me that our funding had been approved and to give me a ‘high five’ through the glass.

Could you describe your background?

I always wanted to be like my dad when I was little, but I didn’t intend to follow in his footsteps. I even did a PhD in Europe so I wouldn’t be associated with him. And I study respiratory viruses, such as influenza, that are constantly changing.

For at least seven years, my research interests have been aligned with those of colleagues at VIDO, but COVID-19 finally brought me here.

Is your father also studying the new coronavirus?

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, he established a lab in Guangdong province in China to help monitor for emerging viruses. Initially, he wasn’t worried by the new reports from China, but that quickly changed. He has received a rapid-response grant to identify clinical biomarkers in patients developing more severe disease. To collect those samples, he is collaborating with researchers around the world — in China, Italy, Spain, Côte d’Ivoire and Sudan.

Do you feel secure working in the BSL-3 lab with this virus?

Yes. First, I have to change through two separate pairs of scrubs — one to get into the secure biocontainment area, and another to go into the BSL-3 lab. Then I put on a biohazard suit and breathing gear. Once we’re inside the BSL-3 lab, we have to check in hourly with security. VIDO has very thorough emergency-response plans, so I feel really safe. I’m more worried for everyone else walking around outside without safety equipment.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01116-y

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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