Galveston National Lab

The Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is pictured on November 9, 2018.


COVID-19 came to Galveston in a crush-proof box.

A sample of the virus that has infected more than 46,000 people around the world and killed more than 1,300 arrived at the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch earlier this week.

Soon after it arrived, researchers at the lab, 301 University Blvd., began to replicate the virus. In a tweet, the laboratory invited researchers from around the world to contact its World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses to get their own copies of the virus.

The hope is that the sample being worked on at the medical branch can be used to more quickly develop diagnostic tests and medical treatments that will be useful in treating the virus, said Kenneth Plante, associate director and curator of the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses.

“We believe that a lot of the research community is going to want to use this strain,” Plante said. “This will help us make progress at a quicker pace.”

The reference center is a library that contains more than 6,700 virus samples of emerging diseases from around the world. The samples date back to the 1930s, and the center constantly is adding new ones to its collection, Plante said.

The sample of COVID-19, which is also known as novel coronavirus, originated with a person diagnosed with the disease who traveled from China to a quarantine site in Washington state.

From there, biological samples from that person were sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. After the samples arrived in Georgia, Galveston National Laboratory officials began negotiating with federal officials to have a sample sent to Texas.

“This is just another example of the lab being engaged on a global problem,” said James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory.

While the COVID-19 outbreak began in China in late 2019, getting samples from there was impossible because of the scope of the outbreak, LeDuc said. Once people were evacuated from China to the United States as the outbreak worsened, it became more feasible to get a sample, he said.

The samples were shipped from Georgia to Texas in a crush-proof canister inside a crush-proof box, Plante said.

It was safe to have coronavirus at the Galveston lab, officials said. Studying infectious diseases is what the laboratory, which opened in 2008, was made for, LeDuc said. Galveston National Laboratory is one of only two university-based Biosafety Level 4 laboratories in the country. It is designed to safely contain infectious diseases.

The reference library isn’t the only way the Galveston lab and the medical branch are connected to the outbreak.

LeDuc and other officials consulted with China while the country was constructing the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory. That lab is in the Chinese province where the coronavirus outbreak started. Representatives from the Wuhan lab visited Galveston in 2018, LeDuc said.

The name comes from the Latin word “corona,” meaning a halo or crown, which the viruses resemble when viewed under a microscope.

Common symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough and fever. Shortness of breath, chills and body aches are associated with more dangerous kinds of coronavirus, according to the CDC. It’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people, according to the center.

Although the exact origins of the coronavirus are still unknown, there’s no evidence that connects the laboratory with the Wuhan outbreak. This week, the World Health Organization said the virus likely originated in bats, then spread to another animal, before reaching humans through a seafood market in Wuhan.

Galveston also is a potential treatment site for people infected by the disease. The medical branch last year opened a $17 million biocontainment treatment unit that can be used to treat people with highly infectious diseases.

The unit was commissioned after the medical branch was chosen as one of 10 hospitals in the country that would act as a regional Ebola treatment center, following an outbreak of the disease that infected 28,000 people worldwide, including three people in Texas.

Although the facility is available, there were no people being treated for coronavirus at the medical branch as of Thursday, a medical branch spokesman said.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Texas was announced on Thursday. A person being held at a quarantine station in San Antonio was confirmed to be infected with the virus.

That person was isolated and was being treated at a local hospital, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Despite the confirmed infection, the risk that other people in Texas will be infected is low, according to the health department.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.



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