loading animation

— Research


A physician-scientist recalls how his team quickly got a specialized facility up and running so researchers could work with live coronavirus, speeding the search for new treatments and preventions

My goal as a physician-scientist is to ask clinically important questions, conduct experiments in the laboratory to answer those questions, and translate those research concepts back to the bedside to help patients.

But when COVID-19 exploded, there was nothing but questions. How does this virus hurt people? How can we treat it? How can we prevent it?

I wanted to help answer these questions and so did the UC San Diego research community. Many of these questions couldn’t be answered without performing experiments using infectious SARS-CoV-2 in a biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) facility.
Combining specialized engineering with fastidious work practices, a BSL-3 allows research on important, highly pathogenic organisms to be done in a manner that is safe for both the researchers and for the community.

The UC San Diego BSL-3 became operational in April 2020, and we immediately developed a research program focused on SARS-CoV-2 and other emerging viruses. Together, with a small group of dedicated investigators that includes Davey Smith, MD; Ben Croker, PhD; Sandra Leibel, PhD, and Alex Clark, PhD, we worked tirelessly over two months to develop and optimize the protocols that allow us to conduct leading-edge research on SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis, diagnosis, treatment and immunity.

Our COVID-19 BSL-3 lab now performs experiments with infectious SARS-CoV-2 for labs across the campus and the San Diego research community. This gives groups without experience working with pathogenic viruses the ability to perform critical proof-of-concept testing of their new COVID-19 rapid diagnostics, vaccines and treatments, in addition to experiments that increase our understanding of the virus and its pathogenesis. Some of these discoveries, like our identification of heparan sulfate as an attachment factor for SARS-CoV-2, have led to novel therapeutic approaches to treating this disease, while others may become the diagnostic, treatment and vaccination approaches of the future.

Sometimes the worst events bring out the best in us. I am thankful for the generosity of many within the UC San Diego community that have contributed to the BSL-3 and for the dedication of our biosafety staff. I am amazed at the cross-disciplinary collaborations that have developed during this pandemic at UC San Diego and their potential to make ground-breaking discoveries.

“When I go to work, my five-year-old daughter asks me, “Are you going to the BSL-3 today to fight COVID-19?” I tell her proudly that I am. But, more importantly, I hope that someday soon children won’t have to think about pandemics or viruses.”