MSU researcher examines animal origins of COVID-19

Raina Plowright researches diseases carried by bats.

BOZEMAN — For years, Montana State University researcher Raina Plowright’s work has studied bats and the viruses they carry and spread. Now, with the emergence of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Plowright’s research is timelier than ever.

Plowright said the virus that causes COVID-19, called SARS-CoV-2, originated in bats and is the third coronavirus to move from bats to humans in two decades. She and collaborators in Australia, Bangladesh, Ghana and Madagascar are researching how to prevent the spread of other viruses from animals to humans — a process known as spillover. That work begins by understanding how viruses exist in bats and how widespread they are among bats in various locations.

“Thankfully, we’ve collected a huge dataset over space and time in bat populations in multiple countries,” said Plowright, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in MSU’s College of Agriculture and principal investigator in the Bozeman Disease Ecology Lab. “Now, we can screen our samples for coronaviruses and other viruses that may interact with coronaviruses.”

Raina Plowright

Plowright’s work has also examined Hendra virus and Nipah virus, both of which can also be carried by bats, leading to the extensive collection of samples that can also be used in the new research. She said it’s unknown whether SARS-CoV-2 spread directly from bats to humans or whether it first infected an intermediary species. The researchers in her lab will screen those existing samples to see how many contain coronaviruses and where those samples were collected. That may offer insight into how SARS-CoV-2 made its way into humans.

“Coronaviruses are well known for their ability to recombine parts of their genomes when two viruses infect cells in the same animal. So, it could have had a bit of a genetic mix-up in a different host,” she said. “We’re working to understand coronaviruses in bats as well as looking of the role of bats in not just this, but also future spillovers.”

In addition to analyzing the samples they already have, Plowright and her team are moving forward with research to help Bozeman, Gallatin County and the state of Montana respond to the ongoing pandemic. Work in the state includes research with Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton to examine aerosol transmission of the virus and preventive measures; monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in Montana’s communities; and creating predictive computer models.

“We are working with local epidemiologists and other researchers here at MSU to provide forecasts to the community on when to expect peaks, the capacity of local ICUs and so on,” she said. The hope with predictive modeling is to develop a toolkit for reopening local, state and national economies and allowing individuals to return to workplaces.

The more information governments have on how the virus spreads and the potential ramifications of reopening, the more they can prevent future spikes in infection and death, said Plowright, something that is true the world over. An international graduate student and postdoctoral fellow are also helping efforts in their home countries of Chile and Uruguay, monitoring the progress of their outbreaks and aiding in the exchange of scientific information to help local pandemic response teams.

“I have a lab full of brilliant young disease ecologists,” she said. “These are young people with great expertise and advanced degrees in public health and disease ecology. They have found themselves in a real-time response to a real-life pandemic.”

With new discoveries still being made as scientists examine SARS-CoV-2 and a wealth of information available to the public, Plowright’s students and fellow researchers have also created a resource to interpret cutting-edge information so that it can be understood by everyone. They created the Disease Ecology Lab COVID-19 Blog, which answers common questions related to the novel coronavirus and provides understandable summaries of new scientific and medical discoveries. As the world has shifted into high gear to understand COVID-19, Plowright said it is critical that each individual does what they can to protect their community.

“Few groups can study bats and understand the dynamics of these infections in bat populations,” she said. “Our work is to understand how these pathogens spill over and how we can prevent future pandemics is unique. But in terms of responding to the current pandemic, we are doing the same thing that many people around the world are doing, right? We’re trying to do our very best for our community, protect people who are vulnerable and reduce the number of people who are sick and who die from this disease.”

–MSU News