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Success for Croatian hospital: ‘We have grown a virus in the lab that causes COVID-19’

ZAGREB, 18 April 2020 – The University Hospital for Infectious Diseases Dr. Fran Mihaljević in Zagreb has successfully managed to isolate the COVID-19 virus by growing it in laboratory conditions, RTL exclusively reports, adding that it is the first step for finding a vaccine. 

“We have grown the virus under laboratory conditions from the swab of a patient who was positive for SARS-COV-2,” said a biologist at the hospital, Željka Mačak Šafranko.

Ivan Christian Kurolt, another biologist at the Hospital for Infectious Diseases Dr. Fran Mihaljević, further explained: “First of all, it’s a matter of sequencing the whole viral genome, seeing what the nucleotide sequence is like, seeing the differences with some other strains, making a general characteristic. As it grows in culture, how it grows faster, slower, how much it multiplies…”

Mačak Šafranko remembers the day well when they managed to isolate the virus.

“We were in total chaos. We worked all week from morning till dark. Total chaos, doing a bunch of test samples … However, scientific curiosity somehow prevailed here that I was able to go to that lab, put that swab on the cells. After five days I came and saw that there was a virus. We later confirmed this by molecular methods. I felt proud and happy. I didn’t think it would go that easy,” she explains.

The isolated virus was sent to Germany the day after the earthquake that struck Zagreb. 

“It was very important to us that we got the isolated virus from Croatia because once we find that a substance can work against a virus, we must prove that the substance is not only effective against local viruses but that it is more applicable, said a team leader at the Helmholtz Center for Infectious Research in Germany, Luka Čičin-Šain.

Virus sent to Germany

Along with the isolated virus from Croatia, there are also ones from Germany, Austria, northern Italy and soon from the USA.

“It takes a year, maybe more, to get the vaccine, but things aren’t as black as they seem at first glance. Before we have an effective vaccine, it is very likely that we will be able to treat this virus,” Čičin-Šain told RTL. 

Big success for Croatia and the hospital

The head of the University Hospital for Infectious Diseases Dr. Fran Mihaljević, Alemka Markotić, says that this is a great success for both the hospital and Croatia.

“But first and foremost, it’s a success for the team I’ve been leading for a long time. However, they have now become independent and have been doing most of this work only with my knowledge, but very independently. Having your own virus, isolating the native strain of the virus is a big deal. You can get into all the research and clinical studies in the world, and it’s important because of the collaboration we have with our partners in the world. We also sent them a virus and it will help them to characterise the virus, but possibly in the development of some vaccines, said Markotić, who was a guest on RTL Danas.

Alemka Markotić (Photo: HINA/ Dario GRZELJ/ dag)

Markotić also revealed that the hospital had received an offer a few days ago from a US biotechnology company to join the research. 

“They do the most advanced cell biotherapy that they use in tumors, but the same principles could be applied to fight the virus. The offer is top-notch, but we will see if we can agree,” said Markotić.

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