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These Three Seattle Scientists Study the Coronavirus. Now They’re Getting Millions to Chase Their ‘Wildest Scientific Ideas’

By September 24, 2021No Comments

Three Seattle scientists who have been studying the coronavirus have been selected among hundreds for national biomedical funding that offers millions of dollars toward their research, positioning them for possible scientific breakthroughs down the road.

Trevor Bedford, Frederick Matsen IV and David Veesler are among 33 researchers recognized this year by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the largest private biomedical research institution in the nation. The Maryland-based nonprofit is awarding the group of scientists with $300 million — about $9 million per person — to “chase their wildest scientific ideas,” the institute said on Thursday.

The funding will last seven years, though it can be renewed at the end of that period, said David Clapham, HHMI’s vice president and chief scientific officer.

“Science benefits greatly from stable funding,” Clapham said in an interview. “Most scientific projects take many years, sometimes a lifetime, to understand. Hughes provides that sort of stability — enough funding where you’re not just writing grants all the time.”

He added, “We want to free them up so they can really think about what they’re interested in and get to the root of it.”

While the interests of this year’s 33 “investigators” range from brain electricity in mental health disorders to cures for cancer, Bedford, Matsen and Veesler are focusing on viral outbreaks, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“These three really stood out,” Clapham said.

Coronavirus transmission

Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, became well-known in the Seattle area early in the pandemic for detecting the coronavirus outbreak locally. He’s long been analyzing outbreaks and developing surveillance networks, such as the Seattle Flu Study, an effort led by the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, UW Medicine, “The Hutch” and Seattle Children’s.

When Bedford joined The Hutch in 2013, he was working on influenza research and flu evolution, eventually helping launch Nextstrain, an open-source project that analyzes pathogen genome data. Through Nextstrain, Bedford later pivoted to tracking other viral diseases, like Ebola and Zika.

Since the pandemic started, however, he’s been focusing on understanding the virus’ transmission, using genome sequence data to help epidemiologists track local outbreaks, as well as global spread.

“I noticed inklings on Twitter from Wuhan at the very beginning of January,” Bedford said. The first SARS-CoV-2 genome data became available mid-January, and a few days later, “it became clear to me what sort of situation we were in,” he said.

“It was basically an emergency crisis where it was like, ‘I need to alert everyone I know up and down public health what’s going on,’” he said. Later on in February 2020, a day or so after testing samples collected from the Seattle Flu Study, he and his team detected one of the first COVID-19 community cases.

“[The Flu Study] was designed around a pandemic early-warning system, where the key idea was that you can’t just have something that turns on in the case of a pandemic,” he said. “You want a surveillance system that’s responding to seasonal respiratory virus. … But I definitely did not think or have foresight that this would [detect] a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic in year two of a study like this.”