Scientists at Sunnybrook Hospital, the University of Toronto, and McMaster University successfully isolated and cultured SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, from two patients, accelerating progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine.

The discovery was announced on March 12, and comes almost three months after the outbreak of COVID-19, which started as an epidemic in Wuhan, China in December 2019. One day earlier, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared the virus’ spread across the globe to be a pandemic.

Research teams from all across the world have started accepting grants to work on developing a potential vaccine. Even though COVID-19 shares genomic and structural similarities with severe acute respiratory syndrome — better known as SARS — another strain of coronavirus that was identified and previously researched in 2003, the WHO has said that it would take at least 18 months to develop a vaccine. 

Dr. Rob Kozak, a clinical microbiologist at U of T and at Sunnybrook Hospital, told Sunnybrook News that “researchers from these world-class institutions came together in a grassroots way to successfully isolate the virus in just a few short weeks.”

Lab-grown copies of the virus will help researchers around the world enhance their understanding of the virus’ biology and evolution in order to develop better treatments and a potential vaccine.

One of the primary uses of the isolated virus will be as a control group to see whether the tests currently being used by health care providers are performing as expected, according to Dr. Samira Mubareka, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist who’s at U of T and Sunnybrook.

Researchers can also use the isolated virus to measure the effectiveness of the vaccines and drugs that are currently in development.

As Kozak explained to U of T News, “From a bigger picture standpoint, having a virus isolate that can be shared with other labs to perform other experiments to better understand the virus and how to stop it is critical.”

Karen Mossman, a professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University, told The Globe and Mail that she and her colleagues would be using the isolated virus to understand how COVID-19 counteracts the human immune response.

As of time of publication, the virus has infected more than 662,000 people in over 177 countries and regions, and caused more than 30,800 deaths. While there is more work to be done, there is cause for hope, as the isolation of SARS-CoV-2 could eventually help quell the outbreak and save many lives worldwide.

“Now that we have isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we can share this with other researchers and continue this teamwork,” said Dr. Arinjay Banerjee, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University, to Sunnybrook News, emphasizing that this collaboration will continue.

“The more viruses that are made available in this way, the more we can learn, collaborate and share,” he added.