Fighting a Global Pandemic from Maine

The Jackson Laboratory is committed to finding answers to COVID-19

As soon as COVID-19 was detected in the United States, scientists at the Jackson Laboratory scanned their catalog of mouse models—mice that have been genetically modified and bred to use for research—for one with a makeup that would allow it to become infected with the human COVID-19 virus. Using a model developed in 2007, the lab began creating a colony, producing 1,500 genetically modified mice in just eight weeks. Now, the Bar Harbor–headquartered research institution is the major purveyor in North America for the top model of mice used for COVID-19 research, including for developing a vaccine. The mice allow scientists to test whether a treatment will stop the virus from replicating before moving to human trials.

The Jackson Laboratory’s COVID-19 response goes beyond mice. The lab is also working with the Maine CDC to examine the genetic signature of the virus infecting Mainers. “We take the virus from you, sequence it, and say, ‘Is it similar to the virus of the person next to you, or the virus of one of your colleagues?’” says Dr. Edison Liu, president and CEO of the Jackson Laboratory.

Sequencing provides a fingerprint of the virus, which allows scientists to trace where that particular strain of COVID-19 came from. The Jackson Laboratory has also developed sensitive antibody tests that determine the amount of immunity a person will build against the infection, and whether any of those antibodies are neutralizing, which means they block the function of the virus itself. These tests will help ascertain whether certain antibody therapies will work or not. With sequencing and antibody testing, the Jackson Laboratory is able to understand the basic mechanisms of COVID-19 and determine which treatments could be most successful.

Since March 23, the Jackson Laboratory has completed 100,000 viral tests in Maine and Connecticut, with plans to advance to 20,000 tests a day. This fall they will be testing students at the Maine Maritime Academy and the University of Connecticut. As schools reopen and students come back to campus, access to the testing is important. “To be able to test for the virus is fundamentally how you’re going to control it,” says Dr. Liu.

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