A CSU team just got $1M to test a potential COVID-19 vaccine. Among them is a CC alumna.

Also, what you missed from yesterday’s Town Hall on Classes and Academics

Good morning, and happy Thursday. On this pre-pandemic date last year, streets were closing for the 79th annual “Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Parade.” The 2020 event is scheduled for late August.

Today, we talk to a Colorado College alumna about her role in COVID-19 research, and recap yesterday’s Town Hall on Classes and Academics.

➡️ICYMI: Yesterday, we looked at some schools adopting Block Plan-like schedules for fall and talked to three Colorado College paraprofessionals staying at CC for a second year.

Infographic by Colorado College students Rana Abdu, Aleesa Chua, Sara Dixon, Jia Mei, and Lindsey Smith

‘Shooting Blind’: CSU researcher Izabela Ragan, a CC grad, on COVID-19 research and the race for a vaccine

Izabela Ragan graduated from Colorado College in 2009 and went on to get her DVM and Ph.D. from Kansas State University. She’s now working in a lab at Colorado State University where she’s helping develop the SolaVAX™, a potential COVID-19 vaccine that’s still in the pre-trial stage. The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project connected over Zoom this week to talk to Ragan about her research, the challenges she faces, and the race for a vaccine. 

🥽 What a typical day looks like during COVID-19 research 

Ragan starts her day by changing into new scrubs and a “full bubble suit,” a necessary requirement to enter the Biosafety Level 3 lab where they work with live viruses. For two to seven hours, Ragan is “in containment,” pretty much isolated from the outside world.

“You’re in these suits for hours: you can’t touch your face; you can’t eat; you can’t drink; you can’t do anything,” Ragan says. “It takes some finesse to be comfortable being isolated like that for hours on end.”

Once in their bubble suits, Ragan and her colleagues work on investigating some central questions about COVID-19: What is the virus doing? Where did it come from? How is it spreading and transmitting?

A few other questions they are investigating:

  1. How long do COVID-19 antibodies last, and can they protect against a second infection?

The vaccine research includes studying this to determine if one dose of a vaccine will be sufficient, or if it would require multiple doses over time. 

  1. Can the coronavirus be transmitted through blood transfusions? In other words: if you donate blood while you are unknowingly infected with the coronavirus, could it spread to whoever receives your donated blood?

“As far as we know … there is no risk, but nobody has proven that yet,” Ragan says. “So we’re working on that to make sure that any blood products are safe, especially if it comes from a patient who may be infected with COVID-19.”

  1. From which animal reservoir did the virus originate?

Researchers around the globe have thrown snakes, bats, civet cats, and pangolins into the mix as potential carriers of the coronavirus — a list Ragan’s lab is trying to narrow.

“We’re pretty confident there is a bat involved at some point of the lifecycle of this virus, but we’re guessing there is some intermediate host that it adapted from into humans,” Ragan says.

  1. Are other treatments effective?

“There’s a lot of people approaching us who have their own vaccines and antiviral drugs and therapeutics that they want to test, so we test that for them,” Ragan says. This includes testing both Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesivir to see if they work. 

  1. How is the virus transmitted between species: from animals to humans, and humans to animals?

🧪 How the lab transitioned to COVID-specific research 

They started hearing reports about the coronavirus in January, and by February, Ragan says they were able to acquire some of the virus to start investigating how it replicates and transmits. In the meantime, the rest of the research projects were put on hold.

The lab wasn’t exempt from PPE shortages. Early on, they began organizing and prioritizing the materials and equipment they had. With limited supplies, each use had to be worthwhile. 

“If you’re going to go to the lab and use this PPE, go in there and make it worth your time,” Ragan says. “Don’t go in for five minutes and waste all the supplies. Go in there for a few hours; get as much as you can done.” 

Shortages haven’t been limited to PPE. Other lab supplies, including test tubes and substances used in reactions, have been hard to come by with so many researchers working on COVID. 

💉 SolaVAX venture receives nearly $1.15 million in funding 

Ragan estimates there are five or six other vaccines in production right now, but CSU explains the SolaVAX is unique in that it repurposes “an existing technology platform for the inactivation of pathogens in blood product.” If successful, it could be produced in a rapid but cost-effective manner. They received nearly $450,000 from CSU and close to $700,000 in federal funding to produce the vaccine. They just completed their first animal model test for the SolaVAX, and it looks “very promising,” Ragan says.

Creating a vaccine can take between five and 20 years, but with the race to find one for COVID-19, the typical order and steps have become more flexible. 

“COVID-19 kind of messed up the typical rules of how you develop vaccines,” Ragan says. “I've heard people say that right now we're just shooting blind and hopefully one sticks — that's kind of the tactic. It's not the most efficient, but we need to get something.”

The next step in the SolaVAX process is producing “large quantities in an environment, in a laboratory setting that would create a very pure, clean product that would be compatible and FDA approved to vaccinate into humans,” Ragan says. 

 The hardest part of being a COVID-19 researcher

Ragan says one of her biggest challenges is seeing firsthand how the coronavirus spreads and how infectious it is, then coming home and seeing so much misinformation.

“It’s just disheartening to see people really just don’t trust the science,” Ragan says. “We can totally fix this and stop the spread, but everybody needs to work together.”

When it comes to work-life balance, Ragan says they’re “pretty burned out,” but knew when they chose their careers that there’s not much room for rest when researching emerging diseases.

“When it comes to these emerging diseases, when it comes out like you just go full bore and you do as much as you can. ... but we’re just so passionate,” Ragan says. “I think I can say this for everybody in our lab: we love what we’re doing.”

Town Hall on Classes and Academics: Class formats, registration timelines still undecided

Yesterday, Colorado College hosted a Town Hall on Classes and Academics with the following panelists: Vice Provost Pedro de Araujo; Director of Student Support Teresa Leopold; Director of Accessibility Resources and ADA/504 Coordinator Jan Edwards; Executive Director of the Colket Center for Academic Excellence Traci Freeman; and Director of Global Education Allen Bertsche.

If you didn’t attend, here are the highlights:

  • CLASS FORMATS: Faculty have the authority to decide whether they want to teach face-to-face or online, which includes those responsible for CC100 and CC120. Before school starts back in the fall, students will be able to see the formats of classes on Banner. Though administrators do not intend to reopen fall registration, students will have the opportunity to change their fall course selections if they are not offered in their preferred format.

  • GRADES: Administrators are considering continuing to allow students to choose their preferred grade track until the last day of class

  • CLASSES: The college is currently conducting an analysis of buildings and classroom spaces and investigating outdoor locations and other large conference rooms that classes could potentially use. Administrators are also looking into staggering the start times of classes to decrease density in buildings. Expect to see masks in classrooms this fall, and fewer students in classes. Students will also have to maintain appropriate social distancing in classrooms.

  • REGISTRATION: If a class is rescheduled to another block, students who were initially enrolled in the class will have priority when registering for the updated class. Registration for spring semester classes is still scheduled for Block 3, and there are currently no plans to change the point system. Administrators are considering a different selection process for J-Block classes. 

  • SICK DAYS: What happens if a student catches COVID-19 while taking a class? In the Zoom Q&A, Leopold wrote that the answer will depend on the class and when in the block the student gets sick. Students who cannot finish a block because of illness, but are passing as of the second Tuesday of the class, should work with their professor and the Registrar’s Office for a Y (excused) grade. “We’re going to try at this point to figure out a way to ... treat some of these on a case-by-case basis in terms of the academic progress piece,” de Araujo said. “But of course we’re going to have in place some protocols and guidelines for safety.”

About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is a student-faculty collaboration by Colorado College student journalists Miriam Brown and Arielle Gordon, Visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism Corey Hutchins, Assistant Professor of English Najnin Islam, and Journalism Institute Director Steven Hayward. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear from time to time, as will infographics by Colorado College students Rana Abdu, Aleesa Chua, Sara Dixon, Jia Mei, and Lindsey Smith.

The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community. 

📬 Enter your email address to subscribe and get the newsletter in your inbox each time it comes out. You can reach us with questions, feedback, or news tips by emailing ccreportingproject@gmail.com.