Champions against COVID-19

The novel coronavirus contains a specific enzyme that acts like a pair of “molecular scissors,” cutting large proteins into the smaller pieces required for the virus to reproduce. Texas A&M researchers are developing an antiviral inhibitor to target this enzyme. (Illustration by Anne Fu, Research Communications and Public Relations)

Texans have a new champion in their state’s ongoing battle with the novel coronavirus that is causing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mission of the newly formed Texas A&M Emergency Management Advisory Group (TEMAG) is to apply Texas A&M’s education, multidisciplinary research and service to support the state of Texas, through the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The scientists, engineers and researchers of TEMAG are developing novel tools, technologies and countermeasures with one goal: To better protect Texans from today’s COVID-19 pandemic and tomorrow’s outbreaks of infectious diseases.

As a multidisciplinary team, TEMAG brings together more than 85 high-level experts in infectious diseases, virology, medicine, healthcare, emergency management, communications, supply chain management, international affairs and many other disciplines from within Texas A&M University and across the state.

Texas A&M Vice President for Research Mark A. Barteau said TEMAG represents the true spirit of A&M’s land-grant mission to serve the people of Texas, especially in times of crisis.

“In real time, we are watching A&M researchers and their colleagues take on this global catastrophe with their knowledge, expertise and innovation,” Barteau said. “TEMAG provides a forum for these researchers to collaborate across disciplines to take on challenges of this magnitude. Today, our challenge is COVID-19. In the future, TEMAG will stand ready to confront the disease outbreaks and other extreme hazards that may threaten Texas and the nation.”

An antiviral to stop COVID-19

Researchers at Texas A&M are working on an antiviral inhibitor that will target a specific enzyme — one that acts like a pair of “molecular scissors,” cutting larger proteins into smaller pieces — within the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes the disease COVID-19. This process provides the virus with the structural proteins and enzymes it needs to reproduce.

Collaborating on the development of a medication that will interrupt that process are TEMAG members Thomas Meek, professor, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Wenshe Liu, professor, Department of Chemistry, College of Science. Meek also holds an appointment with Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

There are currently no vaccines or drugs to protect people from the novel coronavirus, Meek said.  “In essence,” he said, “medical science is as ill-prepared to cure — cure, not treat —  this pandemic as they were 100 years ago during the influenza epidemic of 1918.”

The enzyme found in the novel coronavirus is similar to one found in the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Liu said. That virus, known as SARS-CoV, triggered SARS epidemics in East Asia and Canada during 2002-03.

“There is a lot of related work done for the SARS enzyme,” Liu said. “Based on these literature results, we are streamlining our testing process by synthesizing candidates that have already shown strong inhibition against the SARS-CoV enzyme and testing them on the enzyme in the current coronavirus.”

In addition, the team is analyzing more than 50 inhibitors created at Texas A&M for effectiveness against the targeted enzyme, Meek said.

Meek and Liu also hope to collaborate with a private company with the capacity to test trillions of virtual molecules, including known inhibitors, against the enzyme found in the novel coronavirus. “It’s like screening trillions of keys until you find one that turns the lock,” Meek said.

Development usually takes five to eight years, but the federal government is likely to fast-track a successful drug to the marketplace, Meek said.  When completed, the antiviral will likely be administered to patients through an inhaler or orally, the scientists said.

A data-driven model to track disease outbreaks

Texas A&M scientists are creating a data-driven infectious disease model that will help state officials make better-informed decisions in real time about the COVID-19 pandemic as well as future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

“Ideally, we see our model as providing analytic support in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic to help policy makers understand the potential consequences of responses to stem COVID-19’s spread,” TEMAG member Murray J. Côté, associate professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health, told KBTX-TV News in Bryan-College Station.

Côté leads the research team, which includes Rebecca Fischer, assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Tiffany A. Radcliff, professor and associate dean for research, Department of Health Policy and Management, both in the School of Public Health), as well as colleagues in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and the Texas A&M University Health Science Center. 

State officials asked for the model, which will improve their ability to better anticipate the spread of infectious disease as well as sudden stress on the availability of medical supplies, equipment and personal protective gear.

The model divides a population into four categories: susceptible, exposed, infected and recovered, Côté told KBTX-TV.

“Over time and in general, individuals move from one component to the next. It uses current rates of infection, the number of infected individuals, and the size of the community,” Côté said. “What we and other modelers look for is some kind of consensus in the number of individuals in each of the four components. And, our response today to affect the pandemic will guide how COVID-19 spreads in the future.”

A do-it-yourself kit for making N95 surgical masks

Engineers at Texas A&M are responding to the national shortage of personal protection masks by developing a method to construct N95 masks out of air conditioning filters and other readily available materials, the Houston Chronicle reported.

“The do-it-yourself masks are designed to provide protection similar to that of an N95 respirator, which blocks 95 percent of virus-sized airborne particles, unlike traditional surgical face masks,” the Chronicle said.

Led by TEMAG member John Criscione, professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, the team has produced a design, a training video and a Good Manufacturing Process protocol.

“If the gap between supply and demand continues to worsen, and particularly our emergency medical colleagues are forced to use DIY masks, we want them to have technical guidance as they make their choices of materials and construction,” Criscione said. “We see this as our selfless service responsibility to the general public, as Aggies, and we are here to help.”

The Dallas Morning News, and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station also reported on the story.

For additional information on TEMAG and the experts involved in this group, visit temag.tamu.edu.