Millions of people are doing everything possible to avoid the COVID-19 virus. Robert Davey couldn’t wait to get his hands on it.
When he did last Thursday, the Boston University microbiologist was wearing heavy-duty rubber gloves and an air-tight pressurized biocontainment suit tethered to a coiled red tube that made him look like a B-movie spaceman. Inside the vial that he cracked open at a university laboratory was a pink-orange freeze-dried powder containing a sample of live coronavirus. It came from a blood specimen drawn from the first patient diagnosed with the disease in Washington state in late January.
“We work with very dangerous things,” said Davey, who has studied deadlier pathogens, including those that cause Ebola, Marburg virus disease, and Lassa fever. “We’re not scared to work with this.”
The high security South End laboratory is the only one in New England with a specimen of the virus that is sweeping the globe, according to Ronald B. Corley, director of the facility. Called the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, or NEIDL, the lab won final approval in 2017 to research the world’s most lethal microbes after more than a decade of controversy and failed lawsuits by neighbors who feared an escape of dangerous germs.
Scientists at the lab plan to begin testing thousands of approved and unapproved drugs next week on human cell lines that they have intentionally infected with COVID-19 in an attempt to come up with the first potential medicine for the disease.
They join dozens of other research efforts around the world aimed at determining whether existing compounds and others in development can treat the illness. Much of that work can be done initially without the actual virus by scientists synthesizing and cloning proteins.
But there’s nothing like the real thing.
“There are lots of advances in the technology for trying to study inhibitors,” said Corley, an immunologist. “But in the end, they require working with the live pathogen.”
Scientists at the lab plan to test 15,000 to 20,000 compounds on the cells, Davey said. They’re coming from a variety of sources, including Harvard University’s Greater Boston Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, the Drug Repurposing Hub of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, BU’s Center for Molecular Discovery, teaching hospitals such as Massachusetts General Hospital, and biotechnology companies throughout New England.
Davey, 53, is a native of Australia who joined the lab in 2018 after overseeing the Department of Virology and Immunology at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio.
He said he’s been overwhelmed with e-mails and phone calls offering compounds.
“People ask, ‘Can you try this? Can you try this?’'' Davey said. “At the moment, we are the only people in the whole Boston area that has the virus growing.”
Scientists from the Harvard consortium will help the BU lab rank the most promising compounds so they can be tested first.
Davey said he would be happy to test compounds provided by major drug makers but has only heard from smaller operations. He couldn’t identify them, he said, because of non-disclosure agreements. His lab also received a donation of a cell imaging reader and microscope from BioTek Instruments, a privately held Vermont-based firm that sells scientific instruments and software used in life sciences research.
He is one of a half-dozen scientists at the lab who wear biocontainment suits while working with the coronavirus. Other researchers at the lab are expected to join them as the drug-testing effort expands.
Built with $200 million in federal money, the BU lab located near Boston Medical Center got final permission from the Boston Public Health Commission in 2017 to allow research on Biosafety Level 4 pathogens, the most dangerous microbes that have no treatment or vaccine.
Scientists at the lab had been doing research at Level 2 for five years and at Level 3 since 2014, as part of a national network of secure facilities that study emerging infectious diseases and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines.
The novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year is considered a Level 3 pathogen, less dangerous than other microbes that researchers at the lab have studied. Ordinarily, the scientists could wear less restrictive personal protection equipment, or P.P.E. — masks, surgical gowns and eye gear ― that is used by clinicians treating patients with COVID-19 at hospitals.
But because P.P.E. is in short supply and the BU lab scientists are accustomed to wearing the pressurized biocontainment suits, they are using the latter and acting as if the coronavirus were a Level 4 pathogen.
The lab received two packages containing coronavirus samples in late February from the Biodefense and Emerging Infections Research Resources Repository in Manassas, Va., and the University of Texas Galveston National Laboratory. A BU spokeswoman declined to say how the samples were delivered, citing security reasons.
Davey, Corley, and other lab employees worked closely for weeks with Boston public health officials to get the necessary approvals and permits before the coronavirus research could start.
Around 6 p.m. Thursday, after posing for a photograph while holding a container that held a vial with the virus, Davey broke open the ampule inside and added a little water to the powder with a pipette.
He and the other scientists then began growing the viruses on monkey cells that are used as a host before the virus is exposed to human cells. After human cells are infected, the scientists will test thousands of drugs on them in plates that each contain 384 tiny wells.
Davey said that he has worked with dangerous pathogens for at least 15 years and is eager to take on the challenge of studying COVID-19.
“There’s no psychological hurdle to jump over,” he said. “We’re highly trained. We’re very safe.”
Given how quickly the coronavirus has spread around the world and how many people it has killed, Davey welcomes multiple efforts to discover an effective medicine. No one knows which one will pay off. And there’s a big difference between testing a drug on a virus outside the human body and testing it on volunteers in a clinical trial, he said.
“If there are 20 groups working on it, we need that,” Davey said. “We probably need 100 groups working on it.”
He reveres Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and pioneered the understanding of HIV. Fauci has provided medical expertise as a member of the White House coronavirus task force. Davey said he embodies the best qualities of two characters from one of Davey’s favorite TV shows, “Star Trek.”
“Most people expect scientists to be like Mr. Spock, and many are like Spock,” Davey said. “We’re logical. But James Kirk is the captain. He’s impulsive. And it’s the combination of Spock and Kirk that makes it work.”
Clarification: After publication of this story, Yale University said that the Wilen Lab in the School of Medicine in New Haven, Ct., has also obtained a specimen of COVID-19.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org