Dr. Dinakar Salunke, Director, ICGEB New Delhi

Covid19 Research – updates from India

“Despite the high population density, India has one of the lowest infection and death rates of Covid19 cases.”
Updates from Dinakar Salunke, Director, ICGEB New Delhi

The low numbers may be attributed to the timely response by the Indian government to curb the spread of the virus.  Stringent clampdowns were imposed much earlier than in many countries. Its tremendous capacity to deal with pandemics and experience of managing emerging and re-emerging epidemics like dengue, malaria and others, helped India tackle the situation.

Covid19 ignited the scientific community across the world in ways no other outbreak has done before and they responded rapidly. Until Nov 2019, not many scientists were working on coronaviruses. However, as the disease started spreading into a pandemic, many adapted and the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) became the focus of research at an unprecedented scale. This included diagnostics, therapeutics as well as vaccines. Of course, all of these require a reasonable understanding of the virus biology and its interaction with the host about which, very little was earlier known. India too is expediting research to construct its own arsenal to combat Covid-19. Indian biologists have been breaking their borders, building national and global teamwork unlike any in history.

At ICGEB New Delhi, we have been active in the mission against Covid19. All possible biotechnological strategies have been undertaken at the labs. Considering the urgency, diagnostic technologies were first addressed. ICGEB and the collaborating institutions are engaged with a Delhi-based company towards developing diagnostics for antibody detection. Serology based tests are being developed to provide point-of-care rapid diagnostics for Covid19. The generation of monoclonal antibodies, which is undertaken at ICGEB New Delhi will enable the improvement of antibody-based diagnostics against SARS-CoV2.

ICGEB scientists (L-R) S.S. Yazdani, Microbial Engineering, New Delhi, L. Zerbini, Interim Director and Cancer Genomics PI, Cape Town, S.L. Singla Pareek, Plant Stress Biology, New Delhi, D. Salunke, Director and Structural Immunology PI, New Delhi

While regular therapeutic solutionsare presently not available, rational approaches for drug design and development are underway. The ICGEB New Delhi laboratories are at the forefront of developing structure-based novel therapeutics targeting key SARS-CoV-2 proteases and RNA dependent RNA polymerase for combatting Covid19. In silico, a 1.2 million compound library has been screened against these critical targets. A multipronged approach has been undertaken to deliver validated lead molecules with therapeutic potential for pre-clinical evaluation. The generation of human monoclonal antibodies has also been taken up for therapeutic applications. In order to find possible early solutions, re-purposing of existing drugs is being explored with priority. A plant-based drug developed by an Indian pharmaceutical company in collaboration with ICGEB, New Delhi against dengue is soon to be tested against Covid19. Also, Indian traditional medicines using novel formulations are being explored.

Researchers in the ICGEB New Delhi laboratories

Efforts are underway to develop a vaccine against Covid19. Vaccination is the most cost-effective public health strategy, although vaccines against some pathogens have remained elusive. Since the emergence of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, the pipeline of a Covid-19 vaccine candidate is expanding rapidly. Covid-19 vaccine strategies include live attenuated virus, inactivated virus, non-replicating viral vectors, replicating viral vectors, recombinant proteins, Virus-like-particles (VLP), peptide, DNA and RNA based platforms, and so forth. Since there are several knowledge-gaps in the immune responses elicited by SARS-CoV-2, it is desirable to explore all possibilities. Over half a dozen vaccines are under development in India. The ICGEB team has earlier successfully designed a VLP based dengue vaccine candidate that disables the immune-evasion strategies of dengue virus. Based on that design, a recombinant Covid19 subunit vaccine candidate is under development.

Towards understanding the Covid19 disease, scientists at ICGEB New Delhi have performed an integrated analysis of a large number of SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences from 14 countries. They have found miRNAs, which can potentially target SARS-CoV2 genomes. The gene expression analyses of known host factors are revealing significant insights. Supplementation of immuno-metabolites and phytochemicals with prophylactic anti-viral activities could be useful for better Covid19 management. Towards this end, it is proposed to explore the metabolic status of Covid19 patients.

The Covid19 pandemic has seriously affected both life and livelihood in every part of the world. Therefore, having effective diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines against this virus is required at this point in time. As with all past epidemic outbreaks, this pandemic will also eventually disappear. However, the virus is unlikely to become completely extinct anytime soon. Therefore, our success in the efforts to fight Covid-19 in all the above strategies will be useful for years to come.