The COVID to-do list

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet are currently involved in some 350 research projects in connection to the new coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic. A large number of scientific articles on this topic, with authors from our university, have already been published since the beginning of 2020. Here are seven things on the researchers’ COVID to-do list.

Text: Ola Danielsson, first published in Swedish in the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap no 3/2020.

1. Understand the disease

Some focus on… 

Illustration in blue colours, showing the earth/globe, over this a pattern from cells or a network. The word COVID-19 is written over the illustration.
Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay (public domain)

Constructing an atlas. Researchers are analysing how different immune cells act when the virus enters the body. Early results indicate that many people with COVID-19 demonstrate what’s known as T-cell immunity and that people with a serious infection have a special kind of NK cell activation. 

Building a biobank. An archive of samples is a valuable source of information. 

Studying over-reactions. Many cell types have been identified in patients with severe COVID-19 that are crucial to the immune response.

More reading:

New insights into the immune system’s role in severe COVID-19

Karolinska KI/K COVID-19 Immune Atlas

2. Develop better tests

Some things we need are… 

A hand with plastic glove holding two test tubes with blood. In the background a laboratory.
Photo: Pixabay/Public domain

Simple tests. Researchers are developing a cheaper and faster test that skips costly reaction steps and tests that can be taken at home. 

Large-scale testing. In one project, researchers are developing COVID-19 tests on a large scale to find out how the virus is mutating among populations. 

Prognostic tests. According to one study, a blood test taken on admission to hospital can predict severe COVID-19. 

Some examples:

A cheaper, faster COVID-19 test

Development of mass tests aiming to map the novel coronavirus

Virus in the blood can predict severe COVID-19

3. Stop the infection

The researchers are working all-out to… 

Produce a vaccine. Ideally one that gives broad protection against future coronaviruses as well. 

Meet some of our researchers:

He is fighting the new coronavirus

The KI professor on  Moderna and the mRNA vaccine

Spotlight on vaccine research

4. Monitor mental health

Two approaches to this end are to... 

Drawing of a person in a field of colours
Image: Getty Images

Ask the population. The Omtanke2020 study charts the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health by issuing regular questionnaires and accessing registries. The study is possibly one of the largest in the world on the subject. 

Preventing suicide. One global study examines the effect of the pandemic on mental health and suicide rates, and whether suicide can be prevented with social support. 

Some examples:

KI leads major study on mental health during the pandemic (in Swedish)

COVID-19 BIC study to prevent suicide

Digital CBT effective for severe COVID-19 worry

5. Find treatments

Strategies include… 

Oxygen chamber
Photo: The Anesthesiology Clinic, Blekinge Hospital in Karlskrona, Sweden.

Using blood plasma. Clinical studies are in progress to find out if plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 can help the sick. 

Producing antibodies. Several projects are trying to produce the best antibodies, such as from the blood plasma of recovered patients, to use as medicine.

Cheating the virus. Researchers are trying to get the virus to attach to a drug molecule instead of a receptor, through which it enters the cells. 

Using what we have. With the help of AI, researchers are searching existing drugs for ones that could help against COVID-19. Two drugs for rheumatoid arthritis are showing promise. 

Raising the pressure. Can the brief delivery of 100% oxygen in a pressure chamber help treat COVID-19 patients with pneumonia? Research will provide the answer.

Some examples:

The hunt for antibodies against the coronavirus

Green light for trial study on using blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients

Researchers identify nanobody that may prevent COVID-19 infection

KI researchers to evaluate effect of hyperbaric oxygen treatment against COVID-19

Baricitinib treatment linked to reduced mortality in COVID-19 patients

6. Identify risks

Three ways of doing this are to… 

Study risk groups. According to the WHO, old age, cardiovascular disease, cancer, COPD, asthma and diabetes are risk factors for severe COVID-19. Researchers are now finding out how risk groups can be protected. 

Photo: Arek Socha, Pixabay (public domain)

Look for genes.  An international consortium, the Swedish branch of which is being coordinated from Karolinska Institutet, has been set up to find gene variants that can give rise to severe COVID-19 or protect against infection. 

Follow young adults. Young adults are generally spared serious infection, but how does their immunity work and what are the long-term effects? The classic BAMSE project, which began in 1994, will be used to answer these questions. 

Some examples:

The COVID Human Genetic Effort

Immunological cause of severe COVID-19 identified

Frailty a better prognostic factor than age for predicting COVID-19 survival

Neandertal gene variant increases risk of severe COVID-19

Covid-19 follow up within the BAMSE project

7. Find out more! 

There are many questions left to be answered. For example, how is working life affected and what is it like to give birth during a pandemic? Studies are underway.

More reading:

Survey of COVID-19 research provides fresh overview

Rapid research finds new paths

Latest news on COVID-19 from KI