Meet an Ontario researcher who helped isolate COVID-19

Arinjay Banerjee studies bats and infectious diseases — an area of specialization that made him just the right fit for a special team investigating the novel coronavirus
By Abigail Cukier - Published on Apr 20, 2020
Arinjay Banerjee holds a PhD in veterinary microbiology from the University of Saskatchewan. (Courtesy of McMaster University)

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Arinjay Banerjee remembers being struck by a certain kind of disaster-movie scene when he was a kid: the one in which panicked officials, facing a deadly threat, call in the one expert who knows how to contain it.

“That stuck in my head. I wanted to work so hard, so that when there was a problem, I would be the person they would call,” he says. “I never really expected it and never really wanted anything like this to happen, but if it did happen, I wanted to be that person.”

The call came in February.

When Banerjee was growing up in Kolkata, he liked to sit with his grandfather, a pathologist, and look at human tissue through a microscope. “I was totally intrigued by anything you can’t see,” he says. During studies in Berlin, he heard a University of Saskatchewan professor deliver a talk on bats and infectious diseases, and he was intrigued; in 2014, he headed to Saskatoon, where he studied human and bat-cell responses to coronaviruses. He got his master’s, then a PhD in veterinary microbiology. He researched the connections between bats and Middle East respiratory syndrome. 

But he was drawn to Hamilton’s McMaster University — in particular, to its unique captive-breeding bat colony. It would provide cell lines for his research, which involves studying the mammal’s ability to control infections, with the aim of using that knowledge to improve our own immunity and develop treatment strategies. 

He started working as a postdoctoral researcher at McMaster’s Institute for Infectious Disease Research in 2018, investigating how bats can carry so many viruses without developing debilitating systems.

Two months ago, Banerjee and his supervisor, Karen Mossman, were on the phone with Samira Mubareka, an infectious-diseases physician and a microbiologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. They had been helping to organize a conference on human diseases that come from natural sources, including animals. Mubareka also happened to be part of the team that had collected samples from the first Canadian patients with COVID-19, which is suspected to have originated in bats. They decided that Banerjee and Mossman should join her team and work toward isolating the novel coronavirus. Within a few weeks, Banerjee had completed his regulatory training at the University of Toronto and received his biosafety permissions. 

The team, which also includes researchers from the University of Toronto, works out of a secure containment facility at that university — the lab is containment level three, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (the highest is four). To ensure that the virus can’t escape, the lab is maintained under negative pressure: the air from inside the lab goes through multiple layers of HEPA filters before exiting, and then air from outside enters. 

Before Banerjee goes to work, he gets suited up — trading street clothes for scrubs, a solid-front gown, three layers of gloves, and a powered air-purifying respirator, which filters out contaminants in the air and uses a battery-operated blower to introduce clean air through a hood or a helmet. “You can get pretty hungry and dehydrated,” he says. “You can’t eat or drink or go to the washroom. We drink a half a glass of water in the morning, no coffee, and we optimize the food we eat.”

The team put patient samples on immunocompromised cells in a dish, causing the virus to multiply. Since specimens from patients may also contain other viruses, the researchers had to confirm that the virus that was growing was, in fact, the coronavirus. They extracted genetic material to determine its sequence and compared it to known coronavirus sequences.

In mid-March, the team achieved its goal: it had isolated the novel coronavirus, creating a source  researchers could use to develop vaccines and treatments. It sent samples to research groups across the country and to the National Institutes of Health in the United States. “I felt excited that we had isolated the virus,” Banerjee says. “I knew right away that this would allow us to study the virus and facilitate drug testing and vaccine development.” 

To assist in the design of treatments, the team is now working to determine the range of cells the virus can infect and whether the virus can fight off our immune response. Banerjee continues to live in Toronto — he travels home to Hamilton when he can. “I am just one person. So many people are doing such important work. There are many other people commuting and staying away from their families, so they can help understand and control the outbreak,” he says. “What’s happening is so sad, but I’m glad I can contribute.”

After his current work has come to a close, Banerjee says, he intends to start a research group to continue studying coronaviruses, their wildlife reservoirs, and why these viruses infect humans: “Animal viruses will continue to emerge, and we need to understand them — before they infect humans and cause the next outbreak.”

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