AUB virology lab leads multidisciplinary collaborations tackling COVID-19

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Safa Jafari Safa​​, ​Office of Communications, communications​@aub.edu.lb​

Since 2014, the virology lab at the Department of Experimental Pathology, Immunology, and Microbiology and the Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR) at AUB's Faculty of Medicine has been working to better understand the burden of influenza and other respiratory viruses in Lebanon and the region. Dr. Hassan Zaraket, assistant professor of virology at the department and assistant director of the center, leads the lab and aims to further expand their investigations covering COVID-19. His research interests include genetics and evolution of RNA viruses, antiviral drug discovery, vaccine efficacy, diagnostics, and virus-host interactions.

Zaraket has established multidisciplinary collaborations across campus to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim is to better understand COVID-19 modes of transmission, including its airborne transmission and environmental exposure. The team is also interested in studying the characteristics and risk factors of COVID-19 patients in Lebanon as well as the genetic diversification of the virus. Together with other scientists at AUB and abroad they aim to develop novel antiviral drug approaches as well as innovative rapid diagnostic tools. Teams have been formed and grants submitted for funding.  

“Gaining a better understanding of COVID-19 modes of transmission, particularly within the hospital environment, will aid in infection control and minimize the exposure of healthcare workers," said Zaraket. “Studying virus genetics will allow us to understand the extent of virus diversification in Lebanon and the origin of cases. Finally, in collaboration with colleagues in the US, we are establishing an antibody-based assay that could be used to determine the true incidence of COVID-19 and the extent of protection among recovered individuals. Individuals confirmed to have protective antibodies can then donate their plasma to save other COVID-19 patients." The team plans to share data in the form of publications and with relevant entities in the Lebanese Ministry of Health and government.

What had started as an initiative of a Lebanese doctoral student, developed into a successful virology laboratory, and is quickly becoming a leading source of information contributing to shaping health policy nationally, regionally, and internationally. After specializing in Virology and Community Disease Control at Niigata University in Japan, Zaraket returned to Lebanon seeking a clinical collaborator to establish influenza surveillance in Lebanon. He soon collaborated with pediatric infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Ghassan Dbaibo, and together they saw their project grow into an established multicenter surveillance network. Today, their team is a member of the Global Influenza Hospital Surveillance Network (GIHSN) that aims to generate epidemiological evidence about the burden of severe influenza and the public impact of vaccination and antiviral drug resistance. ​

For more than a decade, Dr. Zaraket has been studying influenza and other respiratory viruses, including pandemic influenza viruses and others with pandemic potential. With the expertise and resources available, the timely research to tackle COVID-19 was a logical next step. “I was sure that COVID-19 will become pandemic, given the information that was emerging from China and observing cases starting to spill into other countries," he said. “As COVID-19 emerged, and knowing that its patients will likely present with typical respiratory symptoms and will thus fit the criteria of our ongoing study population, I quickly reached out to my clinical collaborator Dr. Ghassan Dbaibo, director of CIDR, to update our ongoing protocols so that we can also study COVID-19. We mobilized our resources at the virology laboratory to setup the diagnostic test for COVID-19. We also teamed up with the clinical laboratory at AUBMC to validate the commercial tests and expand our testing capacity in anticipation of a worse scenario such as a wide-spread community outbreak."

Dr. Zaraket is a member of the WHO Pandemic Influenza Special Investigations working group which developed the Early Investigation protocols that are now being used globally to understand COVID-19 epidemiology and transmission dynamics. He is also a council member of the International Society for Influenza and other Respiratory Viruses and a regional expert and consultant on viral pathogens. He completed his postdoctoral training at WHO's Collaborating Center at St Jude Children's Research Hospital, where he investigated zoonotic (or emerging) influenza viruses with pandemic potential.

“My dream is for my laboratory and our institution to become a key player in the regional and global pandemic preparedness and response efforts now and in the future."

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