Montana Public Radio

Montana Scientists Shift Focus To COVID Research

May 11, 2020

While some research is plagued by uncertainty and has ground to a halt, COVID-19 has fast-tracked other innovative experiments and spawned new collaborations.

This is the first in a series looking at the push and pull of the novel coronavirus pandemic on science in Montana.

A key to tracking the spread of coronavirus as the state enters new phases of reopening might lie in our toilets.

Postdoctoral researchers in Montana State University’s department of Microbiology and Immunology Artem Nemudryy and Anna Nemudraia are filtering wastewater that’s been stewing beneath the city of Bozeman. They’re on the hunt for traces of the novel coronavirus. When they’re all done with filtration, they’ll scan their samples using a microwave-sized machine that copies and amplifies genetic codes. With this method, Nemudryi says instead of testing people for the virus one-by-one,

"You can test the whole community, like simultaneously," Nemudryy says.

That’s because when somebody with COVID-19 poops, that waste contains genetic evidence of the virus. Scientists call it "shedding."

Associate Professor Blake Wiedenheft is the head of the lab..

"By going to the wastewater treatment plant, we can collect a composite sample over 24 hours that is an average of how much virus is being shed."

Wiedenheft says this analysis could show what proportion of the community is infected quickly, and even if there aren’t enough traditional testing supplies to answer that question. Policymakers can use that data to inform broader public health measures. Should we reopen more of the economy, or ought we stay hunkered down?

Wastewater testing for COVID-19 is picking up across the country and the world, but this lab at MSU was one of the first to show that the method could be successful even in an area with a relatively low infection rate.

Wiedenheft ordinarily studies the immune systems of bacteria. But like scientists across the state, his research pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What’s unique about this situation is that the urgency has really pulled people together to focus on a new topic that they may not have been working on before," Wiedenheft says.

The University of Montana’s Center for Translational Medicine, which normally works on the common flu and tuberculosis, among other ailments, received $2.5 million from the National Institutes of Health to work on a coronavirus vaccine. Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton has shifted its focus from a plethora of infectious diseases to nearly exclusively COVID-related research.

Michelle Flenniken, assistant professor of plant sciences and plant pathology at MSU, usually focuses on viruses causing honeybee die-offs and other agricultural problems. But when the coronavirus gained a foothold in Montana, she realized her know-how could apply beyond the insect world.

"While a honeybee and a human seem pretty different to you, to us they’re just a host."

Flenniken and her research team repurposed the technology they use to scan bees for pathogens to scan human samples for COVID-19. With the help of colleagues and the MSU administration, she donated her lab’s scanning machines and expertise to Bozeman Health. The equipment allows the hospital to conduct about 60 coronavirus tests per day, boosting the state’s overall capacity.

Katie Daughenbaugh, manager of the Flenniken Lab, is ecstatic about her team’s collaboration with Bozeman Health. She helped the hospital staff get trained and begin testing.

"It’s a good way to kick you out of your routine and to remember the relevance of the work that you’re doing."

However, Daughenbaugh has also spent more than a month out of work. After COVID-related health policies went into effect at MSU, it was no longer possible to go into the lab.

"The last day I was at work was March 25, and I’m labelling tubes, getting ready for March 26. And I didn't come in on March 26 and I haven’t been in since, so I have all these things that are on my bench, ready to go, but I haven’t been able to touch 'em."

Daughenbaugh says she’s lucky, she’s financially stable for now, and even though it’s on the back burner, her research shouldn’t see that much of a setback.

And her situation is common. This is the underside of the impact of coronavirus on science in Montana. At the same time that collaboration and research directly on COVID-19 has ramped up, virtually all other science has slowed to a snail’s pace or halted completely.

The vast majority of scientific research in Montana happens either at or affiliated with big research universities like UM and MSU. Jason Carter, vice president of research, economic development, and graduate education at MSU, says the university had to figure out: When it’s hardly safe to leave the house, what happens to research that depends on shared space, data, and materials?

"We started working on a plan that would shift and transition some of our most talented research areas to try to address this fight against it. We wanted to be part of the solution," Carter says.

Both MSU and the University of Montana instituted new safety and health guidelines, mostly focused on social distancing. Only research deemed “essential” by the universities would continue on campus.

"We defined essential research as anything that would lead to 'irreversible data or financial loss.'"

Carter says science and research is crucial to the university and to the local and state economies. Together, UM and MSU spent over $240 million on scientific research last year, a number that’s been steadily rising annually.

Scott Whittenburg, vice president of research and creative scholarship at UM, says the federal government is funnelling money into COVID-19 research.

"I expect our research portfolio to actually grow during the next few years."

While both Whittenburg and Carter expect university science to flourish in a post-COVID world, they acknowledge that the scientific sway towards coronavirus research does leave at least some scientists and students behind.

Raina Plowright, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at MSU, studies disease spillover from bats to other animal hosts to humans. She leads a team of more than 70 people across five continents; and that work has grown in demand along with global attention on coronavirus.

"This has affected us in an incredible way; in ways that are good, in ways that are devastating," she says.

Of the team’s most crucial field sites, work has continued in Australia, but field work has come screeching to a stop in Ghana, Madagascar and Bangladesh. Entire countries have gone into total lockdown, and protective equipment ordinarily used to keep researchers safe from exposure to bats was turned over to the frontlines of the COVID-19 response.

"Now there will be a big hole in that dataset. Whether that’s one, two, three months; that’s uncertain at this point in time. That is a tragedy for the science, it’s a tragedy to have any sort of interruption of a long-term monitoring program.

In interviews, scientists across the state voiced similar sentiments: a mixture of optimism and frustration. And amid the uncertainty, an unwavering commitment to forge ahead in their research.

"But really it’s just the way things are. And we just have to do the best we can," Plowright says.

This story is supported by a grant from the National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.