In an interview with TNM, Stalin Raj talks about his work on vaccine development and on working with a team which discovered coronavirus.

Meet Stalin Raj the Indian microbiologist working on a vaccine for coronavirus
news Coronavirus Friday, March 06, 2020 - 13:24

With over 95,000 cases being reported from over 70 countries across the world, coronavirus has left health officials around the world on high alert. In places like South Korea, leaders have announced stringent measures to be introduced in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. 

Closer to home in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram, one scientist and his team have been working relentlessly to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. V Stalin Raj is an Associate Professor at the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research Thiruvananthapuram (IISER TVM) and might be one among a handful of Indian scientists who are working on developing a vaccine. In an interview with TNM, he talks about his journey and explains the hurdles involved in creating a new vaccine.

How is the vaccine developed?

Stalin and his team began by cloning a protein called  Spike which can be used to detect the antibodies for the virus. This can also be used for serological test. 

“We are trained to develop ‘pseudo viruses’, which are particle  that closely resembles like a virus but are  non-infectious that can be used for research work in a normal laboratory set up. The lack of ample Biological Safety Levels (BSL) 3 facility is’ one of the bottleneck in India. So it is ideal to work with the pseudo viruses which can be tested in normal laboratories. In addition to this we are also trying to develop adenoviral vaccine, which is essentially a vaccine that can be used against a multitude of diseases during the time of an outbreak,” he says to TNM.

Dr Stalin and team in laboratory

His team is working on the other viruses as well.  

“Our team is looking at cloning that here at IISER TVM and we are looking at the diagnostic side as well. It will take some time,” he adds.

There are claims that China has used anti-HIV drugs to contain the virus, is this something that would work?

“So far we don’t have any data for that though reports say China had experimented with it. There are only a couple of materials saying this is effective,” he says. He says that contact tracing is of utmost importance, so that at-risk individuals can be identified and quarantined as deemed necessary, two things which Kerala has almost seamlessly implemented.

The first positive cases of coronavirus disease in India were reported from Kerala. The three patients were all medical students who were studying in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. They have recovered and have been sent home. The state health minister announced that they may now roam free after having completed the quarantine period following treatment.

Stalin is also associated with the Institute of Virology Advanced  Virology  (Thonnakkal in Thiruvananthapuram which the state has conceived as a premier institute to research on and contain outbreak of viruses. According to him, Kerala is well equipped to tackle any kind of situation.

He notes that the three patients from Kerala recovered quickly due to the timely intervention of the  health officials.

“It’s important to note that they recovered and follow-up studies needed whether they have antibodies against the virus or not, " he says. 

According to the scientist, in SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), which were also caused by a strain of coronavirus, there were asymptomatic cases. Such individuals are capable of passing the infection along even if they don’t have symptoms themselves.

“People with decreased immunity are more prone to contracting the infection. There is a high rate of person to person transmission of the virus. Earlier in 2003 with SARS and with MERS in 2014 only one person had transmitted the virus. We haven’t identified the original and how it was spread. 

The highly dangerous virus

“It was only after the 2003 SARS outbreak that we understood coronavirus could be so deadly. Prior to that it was known to only cause the common cold,” says Stalin.

At the time, China had identified the source of the virus to be civet cat. It took officials in the country six months to contain the spread of the virus.   

“In China’s live markets all kinds of animals are available that makes the transmission of the virus more vulnerable. When there was the first outbreak in China, they killed the civet bat,  closed down all the live markets, began quarantine the people and checked the situation within eight months,” says Stalin, “We don’t know much about the current situation in China. Around seven lakh contacts were traced and scores of others have recovered, but there still remains a lack of data.”

Stalin did his Phd between 2001-2007 at the Central Institute of Brackish Water Aquaculture under the University of Chennai and later pursued a fellowship at the University of Liege in Belgium. It was here that he and his team were able to clone the genome of a fish virus called Koi herpers virus which they studied to understand how viruses enter into fish and causes infection.

Dr Stalin and team

He then moved to Erasmus University Medical Centre Rotterdam to work on human viruses. It was during his time on this research that he discovered a strain of the coronavirus in parrots. Shortly thereafter, Saudi Arabia reported a viral outbreak which was later identified to be MERS.  

"The samples were negative for known viruses. Then sent the sample to Erasmus Medical Centre to Prof Ron Fushier , one of the leading virologists in the world. At Eramus Medical Centre it was confirmed to be a coronavirus,” he says. By studying the virus and its effects, the team of Bart Haagmans was able to charaterise the virus and discover an antibody to the virus in camels which they studied extensively and developed the vaccine for camels and humans. 

Shortly after in 2004, officials were able to find a therapeutic antibody which was found to be effective in protecting against the virus causing MERS in lab environments. 

Professor Stalin continued his experiment after joining IISER TVM two years ago.

“I have given a proposal to the government through IAV expressing our willingness to provide assistance in case of emergency and we are awaiting for the response,” he says of the current situation.


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