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i3S to test SARS-CoV-2 variants

In the scope of the “Testar com Ciência e Solidariedade - COVID-19” (Testing with science and solidarity) program, i3S recently received funding of 300 thousand euros from the Northern Regional Coordination and Development Commission (CCDR-N). This will make the PCR diagnostic process faster, evaluate co-infections with SARS-CoV-2 and understand whether the infectivity and aggressiveness of the strains varied throughout the pandemic. For this, the i3S will use the more than 32 thousand samples stored in its Biobank of nasopharyngeal samples.

“We have already acquired robots to automate the diagnosis of COVID-19 and increase control over the quality of the process”, explains Didier Cabanes, who coordinates the Diagnostic Center created at i3S. “In addition, we are conducting research to take advantage of the biobank of nasopharyngeal samples, molecularly tested for SARS-CoV-2. This collection, which has more than 32 thousand samples (of which one third are positive cases), is a unique tool in Portugal”, underlines the researcher.

Based on these samples which have been stored since the beginning of the pandemic, i3S researchers want to “assess co-infections with SARS-CoV-2, that is, whether there are other pathogens, such as bacteria or fungi, that may be associated with the SARS-CoV-2 and whether they change seasonally, and further determine whether the infectivity and aggressiveness of SARS-CoV-2 strains varied throughout the pandemic”. “It is expected that, as the virus adapts to humans, it will lose aggression, but variants have appeared that must be properly tested”, adds Didier Cabanes.

i3S has one of the few level 3 biosafety laboratories in Portugal and it is in this unit that researchers are performing virus isolation and infection tests. Researcher Luísa Pereira is in charge of this laboratory and explains that “here we work with class 3 biological risk agents - that is microorganisms that carry a high individual risk. For the purposes of diagnostic tests, level 2 is sufficient for SARS-CoV-2, but for longer experiments in handling the virus, level 3 is advisable, together with very strict safety rules and specific training for researchers”.

It is in this laboratory that i3S is already testing the Portuguese vaccine, which is being produced by the company IMMUNETHEP. “We are going to vaccinate mice and infect them with the virus we isolated to see if they are protected”, the researcher says.

The program “Testing with Science and Solidarity - COVID-19” aimed to support projects by non-commercial entities in the R&D system, certified by the Instituto Nacional de Saúde Doutor Ricardo Jorge (INSA), for Investigação Científica e Desenvolvimento Tecnológico (IC&DT). It is focused on the development of research activities that can contribute to solving the problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic or by reducing the magnitude of problems created by other potential pandemics, including the development or optimization of testing methodologies. Support for these projects will help the Portuguese scientific community to position itself competitively on the international scene with regard to the study of this virus.