Inside the COVID-19 lab: growing the virus

vial of blood with corona cell illustration

Dr Zania Stamataki, Viral Immunologist and Senior Lecturer in Liver Immunology at BHP founder-member the University of Birmingham, shows us what coronavirus looks like under the microscope and what laboratory research can do help aid understanding of COVID-19.

Video transcript

Hello and welcome to my lab. My name is Zania Stamataki and I work at the University of Birmingham as a Viral Immunologist.

Before the lockdown, my interests were in liver disease, and I was very interested in viral infections in the liver and how the immune response fails in chronic liver diseases.

When SARS coronavirus 2 emerged we repurposed the laboratory to help understand this new pathogen during the pandemic. So what does SARS coronavirus do?

It is a coronavirus and it gets its name from the little spikes that it expresses all around its surface – you can see them behind me in yellow. And these spikes are proteins that help the virus attach to the cell to infect it.

Our immune system can recognise these proteins by making antibodies that stick to the spikes of the coronavirus and these antibodies can prevent infection and attachment in the target cells. Now this is the concept of neutralisation. Antibodies that block infection of the virus are known as neutralising antibodies.

Now, would you like to see what this virus looks like in the lab?

Behind me you’ll see the first picture I ever took of this virus in my own laboratory. Up above my shoulder you will see the target cells that I’m visualising by labelling their DNA in blue and the red that you could see are spike proteins made by an infected cell. Now this picture was taken 24 hours following infection and by 24 hours after you add the virus the cell becomes infected, and it turns into a little viral factory preparing lots and lots of viral proteins including spikes that we detect here in red and then following this these proteins will be assembled into new virus particles and they will be released from the cell to infect other cells.

Now behind me, the big picture that you see shows what happens at 48 hours of the same infection and this time I labelled the spike protein in green. So about half the cells in this culture have become infected by 48 hours which shows that SARS coronavirus 2 is a virus that transmits beautifully in culture which helps us develop assays like this that are very important in understanding this new disease.

So what can we do by growing this virus in the laboratory? Well first of all we can develop disinfectants which can help us protect our work and our home from infectious virus. You’ve heard that we share the virus by sneezing and using droplets. If we have disinfectants that we can prove that we can eliminate the virus then this would be very, very useful and it can help us all get back to life as normal and get back to work.

Another thing that we can do in this assay, and of course as a Viral Immunologist I’m very interested to see, is if we’re developing effective immune responses against this virus. So if I take antibodies from a patient’s blood or somebody that has recovered from COVID-19 and has developed antibodies in their blood, I can add them into these cultures and see if they can block infection from this virus. So if you have been infected and you have detected antibodies in your blood do you know if they are able to neutralise infection to inhibit infection of new cells? Using this assay we can answer this question. And as the months go by we’re learning more and more about how much antibody is enough to neutralise infection and what’s the quality of antibodies that patients are making.

Another question that we wanted to answer of course is the duration of the antiviral antibodies. This kind of assay is also going to be useful to evaluate antibodies that we make following vaccination.

And finally, of course, we want to develop medicines against this virus so we can test new compounds that are potential drug candidates using this assay and see if we can neutralise infection using those new compounds.

So now you’ve seen what coronavirus infection looks like in the lab. We use very safe category three containment level conditions to grow this virus which means that there is no chance of it escaping back into the circulation.