COVID-19 was first identified in late 2019 and has since resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and unprecedented lockdowns around the world. The disease is transmitted through airborne droplets from infected people, including asymptomic “carriers” of the disease. Though many deaths occur in older people, the disease kills people of all ages and poses a special risk to those with serious lung conditions, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, and those who are immunocompromised.

COVID-19 is caused by a new, or “novel,” form of coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. This virus is related to the same coronaviruses that cause the common cold. Patients who do show signs of COVID-19 often experience flu-like symptoms that can escalate to severe breathing difficulty and death.

Our approach

The La Jolla Institute for Immunology is home to a multi-lab Coronavirus Task Force that capitalizes on our competitive advantages of unique skill in infectious disease research, state-of-the-art technology, and highly collaborative organization.

Members of the LJI Coronavirus Task Force are contributing their unique expertise and perspective in the following ways:

Validating a novel, point-of-need diagnostic test

In collaboration with diagnostic company Mologic, Dr. Sujan Shresta is validating a quick diagnostic test that can detect current or past infections with SARS-CoV-2 in the field.

Understanding why and how COVID-19 spreads and kills

Dr. Alessandro Sette is establishing a global network to comprehensively map the T cell response to SARS-CoV-2. The work will provide an atlas to guide vaccine evaluation, establish the relative value of various viral targets and vaccine designs, and project the impact of viral variants that may be developing throughout the pandemic.

Dr. Pandurangan Vijayanand is carrying out genetic analysis of single T cells from groups of patients to quickly reveal what’s wrong with immune cells in the blood and lungs of patients with severe disease.

Dr. Shane Crotty is leading the effort to analyze helper T cells, focused on understanding how they help B cells make antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in mild and severe disease manifestations, as this is likely important for knowing what will constitute a desirable immune response in the context of a vaccine.

Together with her international network of collaborators, Dr. Sujan Shresta is initiating epidemiological studies in Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam to create a biorepository of Asian viral isolates and human samples. The samples will be used by several labs at LJI to provide fundamental insights into the virus itself, the role of the host immune system in disease severity as well as the development of long-term immunity to help guide the development of vaccines and antivirals.

Testing therapies and vaccines

Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to take on a leadership role in the molecular characterization of potential therapeutic antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. For more information visit

Relying on years of modeling viral infections in vitro and in vivo, Dr. Sujan Shresta’s lab is developing experimental systems to assess the efficacy of therapeutic antibodies and vaccines in living cells and animals.