Predicting the evolution of COVID-19 to help manage future outbreaks

Originally posted on UBC News

As the world prepares for future waves of COVID-19, the ability to predict mutations in the novel coronavirus even before they emerge will be essential to stopping future outbreaks.

UBC’s Dr. Robert Brunham, Steven Plotkin, and Natalie Strynadka—along with a team of commercial and academic collaborators—are one step closer to achieving this thanks to a $1.8 million grant from the Digital Technology Supercluster COVID-19 Program, which aims to find solutions to urgent health care needs across Canada arising from COVID-19.

Robert Brunham

Dr. Robert Brunham

The project, “Predicting the Evolution of COVID-19,” brings together experts in artificial intelligence, computer modelling and structural biology to predict changes to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The findings will inform the early design of effective tests, therapies and vaccines, allowing public health systems globally to prepare and ideally prevent future pandemics caused by evolving strains of the virus.

For the first six-month phase of the project, Strynadka’s lab is working to generate atomic resolution experimental data—using a cutting edge biophysical toolbox including x-ray crystallography and single particle cryo-electron microscopy—that will in turn help train the computational algorithms to optimally predict future mutations of the virus.

“We are incredibly excited about this project, and grateful to the Digital Technology Supercluster for supporting our work,” says Strynadka, a professor of biochemistry in the UBC faculty of medicine. “Our goal is to harness powerful computational methods to predict mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We are working to create algorithms that will hopefully keep us a step ahead of the virus and give us the ability to know where future mutations might arise.”

Natalie Strynadka

Dr. Natalie Strynadka

As part of the project, Plotkin’s lab is designing a universal antibody therapy that the virus can’t easily evade through mutation.

“Given past outbreaks such as SARS and MERS, which were also caused by coronaviruses, there is no reason to assume that another pandemic wouldn’t happen again,” says Plotkin, a professor in the UBC department of physics and astronomy and has held a Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Molecular Biophysics. “This is a problem that is not going to go away on its own, so we have to be forward-thinking in finding solutions for it.”

Brunham, former executive director of the BC Centre for Disease Control and a professor in the division of infectious diseases at UBC who was involved in responding to the SARS outbreak in 2003, is lending his expertise in vaccine development.

“We believe the coronavirus spike protein may very well be the basis for a vaccine for this virus,” says Brunham. “This work will be tremendously important in anticipating whether the virus will mutate to escape immunity generated by the vaccine.”

Steve Plotkin

Dr. Steve Plotkin

The Predicting the Evolution of COVID-19 project is led by Terramera, a Vancouver-based company that fuses science, nature and artificial intelligence to transform how food is grown and the economics of agriculture. Collaborating partners include D-Wave, Menten AI, Microsoft, and ProMIS Neurosciences.

About UBC

The University of British Columbia is a global centre for research and teaching, consistently ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world. Since 1915, UBC’s entrepreneurial spirit has embraced innovation and challenged the status quo. UBC encourages its students, staff and faculty to challenge convention, lead discovery and explore new ways of learning. At UBC, bold thinking is given a place to develop into ideas that can change the world.

About Digital Technology Supercluster

The Digital Technology Supercluster solves some of industry’s and society’s biggest problems through Canadian-made technologies. We bring together private and public sector organizations of all sizes to address challenges facing Canada’s economic sectors including healthcare, natural resources, manufacturing and transportation. Through this ‘collaborative innovation’ the Supercluster helps to drive solutions better than any single organization could on its own.  The Digital Technology Supercluster is led by industry leaders such as D-WaveFinger Food Advanced Technology GroupLifeLabsLlamaZOOLululemonMDAMicrosoftMosaic Forest ManagementSanctuary AITeck Resources LimitedTELUSTerramera, and 1Qbit. Together, we work to position Canada as a global hub for digital innovation. A full list of Members can be found here.

About the COVID-19 Program

The COVID-19 Program aims to improve the health and safety of Canadians and support Canada’s ability to address issues created by the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, the program will build expertise and capacity to anticipate and address issues that may arise in future health crises, from healthcare to a return to work and community. More information can be found here.