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Drugs touted by Trump, blood from recovered patients: Seattle scientists seek coronavirus cures

Weeks after the fever, sweats and headaches from a nasty bout of COVID-19 were gone, Seattle freelance writer Christy Karras showed up for an appointment at a nearly deserted clinic in South Lake Union. Karras, who doesn’t like needles, averted her eyes as a technician collected 10 vials of her blood.

“I was very proud of myself for being able to fill all the vials,” she said. “I was also proud I didn’t pass out.”

Karras’ blood donation didn’t stem from concern about her own health, but a desire to help find treatments for a disease that has already sickened more than half a million people worldwide and killed 32,000. People like Karras, whose bodies successfully fought off the virus, hold the key to one approach: Harnessing the healing power of the antibodies in their blood.

Researchers around the globe and in Seattle are investigating dozens of other promising ideas, from repurposing old drugs to designing new ones. And they’re doing it at unprecedented speeds.

“This is the most urgent project I have ever been involved in,” said Ruanne Barnabas, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington who’s leading a major study to find out whether hydroxychloroquine — one of the drugs recently touted by President Trump — can protect people from infection. The project was awarded $9.5 million Monday from a $200 million fund created by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the British government and other donors to accelerate development of COVID-19 treatments.

Seattle scientists are at the vanguard of multiple initiatives to better understand the virus and find ways to fight it. The city was the initial epicenter of the disease in the United States, and the state continues to be a hotspot with 4,896 confirmed cases and 195 deaths as of 11:59 p.m. Saturday. The University of Washington, in particular, was uniquely positioned to respond to the epidemic even before the country’s first case was confirmed in a Snohomish County man.

On that day — Jan. 20 — UW virologist Dr. Helen Chu was at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Maryland, meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci and others. The purpose was to discuss the UW’s new status as part of a national network for vaccine and treatment trials, and the looming threat of coronavirus was impossible to ignore.

Chu already had long experience with respiratory diseases, including as part of the Seattle Flu Study. Launched in 2018, the innovative project tracked the spread of flu and other respiratory viruses by sending volunteers home-test kits so they could swab their noses and send the specimens back for analysis.

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