COVID-19 (coronavirus) Research

Behind the research: Testing, teamwork and busy days for COVID-19 scientist

Rob Kozak in a lab

Dr. Rob Kozak, a scientist and clinical microbiologist, has been involved in COVID-19 research since the virus emerged in Canada.

In February, Dr. Kozak was part of a team that received a grant to develop genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2. In March, he was part of a team that isolated the virus.

We caught up with him on a busy Friday morning.

You were part of a Canadian team that isolated the virus back in March 2020. What did that mean?

Isolating the virus meant we were able to take a patient sample (the swab you get when you come in to get tested) and grow it in a lab. Viruses replicate when you add them to cells, so we added it to a cell line called Vero E6 cells that is used in research labs, and it grew. Now we have it in freezers in the lab ready to used in any number of experiments to understand SARS-CoV-2 better.

Plus, we have sent the virus to amazing researchers across Canada and they are using it to do a wide range of research, including looking to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

What projects are you involved in since then?

We are just about to start pre-clinical testing some anti-viral treatments, in a collaboration between my lab and University of Toronto researchers.

And I’m collaborating with University of Guelph and Universite Laval on vaccine research. We are ready to set up a challenge experiment in preclinical models to see if the vaccine offers any protection. We’re also working on biosafety and we are also using the isolated virus as a positive control to test point-of-care testing. Things have been very hectic, but in a good way.

Sounds like you are doing a lot of collaborating. Is that unusual for researchers?

It is a bit unusual, yes. We often work quite separately. Through this pandemic, though, we’ve seen lots of researchers coming together from all sorts of specialties— engineers with microbiologists, critical care doctors with virologists, and researchers working together from different institutions across the country. It really is better to collaborate than compete, and that’s especially important when it comes to this global pandemic. We will get a lot further in understanding this virus and combatting it if we put our heads together.

What do you normally study, like in the time before COVID-19?

I focus on emerging or re-emerging viruses. So in recent years, that was researching vaccines for viral hemorrhagic fever – most well-known being Ebola. I’ve worked on Ebola virus, Zika virus, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, and also hepatitis A when we started seeing a re-emergence of that here in Canada. As someone who studies emerging and re-emerging viruses, it’s good to be involved in a lot of projects and be knowledgeable about how many viruses behave. I plan to return to these projects after this COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is a lot of work in the world of viruses is transferrable. So if, let’s say, we develop a diagnostic tool for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), the same technology could be applied to the next emerging pathogen we encounter.

In addition to your research, you are a clinical microbiologist. What does that mean?

I supervise lab activity and testing, and offer advice for the interpretation of the tests. Just like how a radiologist reads an X-ray, a clinical microbiologist interprets a lab test.

With your research projects on the go, and lab testing volumes high with all the COVID-19 testing, I imagine you’ve had some pretty busy weeks. What’s a typical day like for you?

It’s hard to describe what a “typical day” has been for the past few months! I’ll just tell you what’s on the books today: I’m chatting with my research collaborators to move forward with our work developing and testing vaccine candidates; Dr. Samira Mubareka and I are working with a company to validate a point-of-care test so that it can get moving toward Health Canada approval; I’m meeting with our Sunnybrook Occupational Health and Safety team to discuss and decide whether saliva and oral swabs are a good collection method for COVID-19 testing because there’s been some shortage of supplies on the current testing materials. And I’m reviewing grant applications today for the CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) so that we can find the next great idea to fund that will help in the fight against COVID-19. Plus I’m the on-call microbiologist for Sunnybrook in case any healthcare provider has microbiology questions. It’ll be a busy Friday!

Have you witnessed any silver linings during this pandemic?

It’s strange to think about silver linings and positive outcomes from a pandemic that has brought about so much uncertainty, but I certainly can tell you what I’ve seen in my immediate surroundings: I have seen the best brought out in people. My colleagues have all been going that extra mile, working together, staying a little bit later to help each other out — all with an upbeat attitude and grins on their faces. I think that has been incredible. It has been tough, but everyone is there to back each other up and support one another.

We’ve been working at this wild pace for several months now (especially the front line and lab staff), but they haven’t relented. Everyone wants to solve this thing. And everyone has been giving a lot of themselves in order to contribute to that. That’s been really amazing and positive to see throughout this pandemic.

About the author

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Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.