Keep calm and cure coronavirus: COVID-19 collaborations during lockdown


In an impressive example of Instruct-ERIC’s Priority Access scheme in action, researchers at the University of Leeds (Instruct Centre UK) and the University of York have been spending lockdown trying to answer some of the fundamental questions around COVID-19.

A team from the University of York have produced a protein from SARS-CoV-2 that condenses and protects the viral genome, paving the way to possible antiviral therapies or novel testing strategies. The team, led by Professor Fred Antson at the York Structural Biology Laboratory (YSBL), are working in collaboration with the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology (Instruct Centre UK) in an effort to accurately determine the three-dimensional structure of the viral protein. Earlier this year, the research project received funding from Instruct-ERIC through its priority access scheme.

The team of researchers have purified the virus’ nucleocapsid protein and are now characterising it. The nucleocapsid protein is the most abundant protein in the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and those infected with COVID-19 experience a strong immune response to this biomolecule.


Virus researchers, Dorothy Hawkins, Oliver Bayfield and De-Sheng Ker (left to right) discuss progress.


As the nucleocapsid protein is also an important antigen in testing, protein and genes have also been sent to academic and industrial laboratories throughout the UK, which helped to motivate the launch of the COVID-19 Protein Portal, with logistical support from Instruct-ERIC. One finding to already come out of sharing materials and expertise is a study that looks at the immune memory of T-cells in recovered COVID-19 patients.

A challenge of working during the pandemic has been staying safe whilst making quick progress with research. The team has been working in shifts around the clock so that they can maintain social distancing and maximise time spent in the lab. Sharing results, discussions and troubleshooting have all moved online.


Screening grids with the socially-distanced team. From top to bottom, Oliver Bayfield (Postdoctoral researcher), De-Sheng Ker (2nd year PhD), Rebecca Thompson (Senior Cryo-EM Support Scientist/Electron microscopy Facility Manager), Fred Antson (Professor, Department of Chemistry), Dorothy Hawkins (3rd year PhD).


Nonetheless, a positive outcome from research collaborations on COVID-19 has been the openness with which researchers have approached it. PhD student, Dorothy Hawkins (YSBL), who is involved in the study, remarked that “everyone in different labs is really up for collaboration, all competition has been dropped. I think progress has been really fast because everyone has been sharing things as soon as they could.”


Dr Rebecca Thompson with a Cryo-Electron Microscope, University of Leeds. Credits: BBC Look North (Yorkshire) 20/04/2020.