There is still a lot that we do not know about the rampant coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The fact that we know a little more every day is thanks to the intense efforts of the international scientific community. In Austria too, scientists are working nonstop to contribute crucial pieces to the bigger puzzle to solve the corona pandemic. The life sciences are currently particularly challenged. But the humanities, cultural sciences and social sciences are also in demand to analyze the effects of the virus on society and culture.
The Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF) recently launched the COVID-19 Rapid Response Call to further advance research on the coronavirus. It supports projects that help develop medical tests, therapies and vaccines, that make prognoses about the further course of the pandemic, or that investigate its social consequences. The new call supports a total of six projects that are led by researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) or in which the OeAW is involved.
Decoding the genome of the virus
SARS-CoV-2 probably originated in China in November 2019 and has now spread almost worldwide. To analyze this development and the course of mutations in the human population, it is necessary to collect the genomes of the circulating viruses in many parts of the world and to publish them in databases. Researchers headed by the CeMM (Research Center for Molecular Medicine) of the OeAW are now providing the previously missing virus genomes from Austria.
"Our analyses address important issues such as the monitoring of chains of infection, as well as a better molecular understanding of the emergence of viral mutations and their possible influence on the course of the pandemic and the acute respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV-2", OeAW researcher Andreas Bergthaler explains. The scientists have already scored their first success and recently published, Open Access, the first 21 virus genomes out of the 1,000 they are aiming for.
Increasing test capacity in Austria
To contain the virus, it is necessary to expand the test capacity. Many people carrying the virus are asymptomatic and can therefore pass on the virus completely unnoticed. To increase the nationwide test capacity, a total of 20 Viennese research institutes from the university and non-university sector have joined together to form the "Vienna COVID-19 Diagnostics Initiative" (VCDI). They provide machines, scientifically qualified personnel and know-how for additional virus tests in the laboratory. The OeAW is participating in the initiative, which is located at the Max Perutz Labs, with its life sciences institutes, CeMM, IMBA (Institute of Molecular Biotechnology) and GMI (Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology).
Developing a therapy against the virus
It is a race against time: to prevent the world's health systems from collapsing, medication that can be used when the disease takes a severe course is needed quickly. With an international team led by IMBA researcher and founding director Josef Penninger, researchers at the IMBA of the OeAW are pursuing a promising approach that focuses on the enzyme ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2). A therapeutic approach has now been tested in the laboratory on organoids "suffering" from COVID-19. It was shown that the virus can directly infect the organoids and replicate in these tissues. As reported by the OeAW scientists in the journal Cell, the administration of the drug hrACE2 reduced the SARS-CoV-2 infection in these artificially produced human tissues. In cell cultures, hrACE2 reduced the viral load by a factor of 1,000-5,000.
Taking the social consequences into account
The coronavirus not only has a massive impact on human health, it also has far-reaching consequences for individual societies. Some social groups are particularly affected. Refugees are among the most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. The main strategy of virus containment, "social distancing", is extremely difficult for them to implement. For many areas of integration, "social networking" is essential – within the group of origin, but also with Austrian contact people such as mentors, German teachers or NGO employees. In addition, those granted asylum or subsidiary protection mostly live in urban areas and often in very cramped living conditions. Trust in government agencies is often low due to their experiences of displacement. Researchers at the Institute for Urban and Regional Research of the OeAW and the Institute for Social Anthropology of the OeAW are therefore investigating more closely what the pandemic means for the Syrian and Afghan community, as well as for the refugee care NGOs in Vienna.
All projects with OeAW participation at a glance
- Mutation dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 in Austria
Head: Andreas Bergthaler, CeMM - Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW)
Cooperation partners: Medical University of Vienna; Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES); other Austrian universities
- Computer models of spike-ACE2 interactions for the development of therapeutic proteins
Head: Chris Oostenbrink, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna
Cooperation partners: Josef Penninger, University of British Columbia, IMBA - Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the OeAW, Apeiron; Johannes Stadlmann, IMBA of the OeAW, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna
- Molecular understanding of COVID-19 pathogenesis in human blood vessel organoids
Head: Josef Penninger, IMBA of the OeAW
Cooperation partners: Ali Mirazimi, Karolinska Institute and Nuria Montserrat, Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC); Apeiron
- Rapid conversion of laboratory infrastructure to build COVID-19 test capacity in the pandemic
Head: Alwin Köhler, Max Perutz Labs
Cooperation partners: Max Perutz Labs (University of Vienna and MedUni Vienna); Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science, University of Vienna; IMP; CeMM of the OeAW; IMBA of the OeAW; GMI of the OeAW; other institutions in Vienna
- Development of sensitive and scalable screening assays for monitoring COVID-19 infections on a population scale
Head: Johannes Zuber, Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP)
Cooperation partners: Julius Brennecke, IMBA of the OeAW; Andrea Pauli, IMP; Ulrich Elling, IMBA of the OeAW; Stefan Ameres, IMBA of the OeAW; Alwin Köhler, University of Vienna/VCDI; Manuela Födinger, KFJ/KAV
- COVID-19 in the context of refugees and integration – social implications of the pandemic for the Syrian and Afghan community as well as refugee care NGOs in Vienna
Head: Josef Kohlbacher, Institute for Urban and Regional Research of the OeAW
Cooperation partner: Institute for Social Anthropology of the OeAW