COVID-19 has been ‘invited’ into several research projects at UCLouvain, particularly at the Centre for Applied Molecular Technologies (CTMA), where several studies or programmes related to environmental and operational research and logistics are underway.
UCLouvain researchers are participating in numerous research projects on the coronavirus disease that emerged in 2019 (COVID-19). By May 2020, the CTMA was already conducting a dozen.
The new coronavirus isn’t the first microbe to attract CTMA’s interest. ‘We already had several research programmes and experts working on pathogens,’ explains CTMA Director Prof. Jean-Luc Gala. ‘This is why we were able to quickly adapt certain programmes to COVID-19 or launch new ones.’
Testing contaminated air and surfaces
A first field of questions posed by COVID-19 concerns environmental contamination. Can you be infected by touching a contaminated surface? If so, for how long can a surface remain contaminated? What about transmission by air? Can you get COVID-19 just by breathing in a contaminated room?
Several CTMA research projects address these far from fully elucidated questions. The projects aim to detect and quantify the presence of the new coronavirus in the air of different environments (aerobiology) or on surfaces. ‘We’re developing a method for rapid identification of the coronavirus called “loop-mediated isothermal amplification”, or LAMP’, Prof. Gala says. ‘The method amplifies the genome of the virus at room temperature, and allows us to detect it on surfaces, air samples or human samples, with excellent sensitivity. Therefore, LAMP doesn’t require a PCR machine [see box] or temperature modification. The chemical reaction is also simpler and faster. Another advantage is that LAMP can be easily used in our deployable laboratory. Its integration into a detection test is also part of a Win2Wal project in which we’re participating.’
Prototypes for decontaminating or sterilising
Before the COVID-19 crisis, CTMA was already working with an Estonian firm (LDI Innovation) on a laser system that emits ultraviolet C (UVC) rays. ‘The laser excites rare gases, which produces very high energy UVC’, Prof. Gala says. ‘Now, this type of ray is virucidal and bactericidal, it quickly destroys viruses and bacteria. The laser can therefore decontaminate surfaces. We’d already developed a prototype. We’re now in the process of verifying that this type of system can disinfect contaminated surfaces. As part of a European project, we’ll then apply it to the coronavirus.’
Another project carried out with the same firm and Finnish researchers (VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland): a portable steriliser, the size of a small suitcase. ‘Our prototype generates hydrogen peroxide under controlled conditions,’ Prof. Gala explains. ‘It could sterilise masks and filters, for example, in a matter of minutes without damaging the textile fibber. This would pave the way for reusing this type of material, and thus reduce its economic cost and ecological impact.’
Operational mobile lab
The CTMA also designs and organises logistics programmes in collaboration with the Belgian Ministry of Defence, Belgian Civil Protection, the European Commission, and WHO. ‘In collaboration with Civil Protection, we’ve completed the adaptation of a mobile laboratory for the detection of the new coronavirus,’ says Prof. Gala, who was a medical doctor and colonel in the Belgian army. ‘It can be deployed seven days a week in places such as nursing homes, peripheral hospitals, and isolated outbreak areas. The truck houses all the necessary equipment to perform various biological analyses and, more specifically, COVID-19 tests.’
B-LIFE in collaboration with the European Space Agency
The Biological Light Fieldable Laboratory for Emergencies (B-LIFE) has also been adapted for COVID-19. This is a tent and equipment that can be quickly deployed in epidemic zones,1 which makes it possible to quickly make diagnoses and communicate results securely to those concerned. ‘We’ve prepared B-LIFE for operations in northern Italy, which has been hard hit by COVID-19 and is mountainous. So we worked in collaboration with our consortium of industrial partners and the European Space Agency. The ESA provides access to satellites – which provide excellent communications in mountainous areas – and the Galileo geo-positioning system. Galileo makes it possible to produce epidemiological maps in real time that identify precisely the sources of contagion.’
Training volunteers for a second wave
These logistical support tools are available to the authorities. For a second or third wave2 or humanitarian deployment, they could be used in Belgium, Italy or another partner country. ‘Given the pandemic’s scale, in the event of another wave, we would need to strengthen teams on the ground,’ Prof. Gala says. “So we’ll recruit volunteers outside the CTMA but within and outside UCLouvain. We’re already training external volunteers who have spontaneously expressed interest in this type of activity. But we need to train them quickly so they fit into the CTMA team and can use our technologies. To do this, we have a small laboratory suitable for “B-LiFE training”.’ If another wave of COVID-19 can’t be avoided, at least we'll be a little better prepared to deal with it.
(1) In 2010 CTMA deployed B-LIFE for several months in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kasaiï Occidental Province to address a monkeypox epidemic, and in 2014-15 in Guinea to fight the Ebola virus.
(2) As of May 2020, it was still unclear whether the COVID-19 pandemic would cause a second wave, and if so, how significant it would be.