Rapid Response Research


Researchers identify a new coronavirus in Hubei province, China.


Saveez Saffarian flies to Barcelona, Spain, to present research on HIV at the New Concepts in Virology conference


The W.H.O. declares a global health emergency with 9,800 infected worldwide.


Saffarian presents a colloquium on SARS-CoV2 virus to the science faculty.


NSF announces RAPID research grants for COVID-19.


Vershinin and Saffarian submit preliminary NSF proposal.


Preliminary NSF proposal is approved.


NSF RAPID Research Grant approved.


Research paper on CoV2 virus reaction to the environment submitted.


Saveez Saffarian

On January 30, 2020, Saveez Saffarian traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to present HIV research at the New Concepts in Virology conference. “There was a lot of speculation about SARS-CoV2 in that meeting. Although, at the time, it was far less than it would become,” said Saffarian.

Michael Vershinin

Upon returning to Utah, Saffarian was asked to present a colloquium on the SARS-CoV2 virus to his fellow faculty in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. During preparations, Saveez reached out to fellow faculty member Michael Vershinin for help. Vershinin and Saveez have been friends since 2010. “We often bounce ideas off each other. Just to get another opinion and a fresh set of eyes,” said Saffarian.

Vershinin and Saffarian dove deep into the scientific literature to learn as much as possible about corona and related viruses, such as influenza. Their focus was on presenting an overview of the SARS-CoV2 for the colloquium on March 5, 2020. “At the time, I did not immediately see a connection between my HIV research and the SARS-CoV2 virus,” said Saffarian.

Heather Swan

On March 6, 2020, the National Science Foundation (NSF), announced a program of $200,000 Rapid Response Grants for non-medical, non-clinical- care research coronavirus research. The RAPID funding program allows the NSF to quickly review proposals in response to research on issues of severe urgency with regard to availability of data, facilities, or specialized equipment. Saffarian’s colloquium had turned into research opportunity.

Michael Vershinin recognized this research opportunity immediately. Much of the existing NSF research centered on the spread of influenza on an epidemiological level, with fewer answers about the actual virus particle and how climate and specific conditions affect it. “Our work is in the nanoscale,“ said Vershinin. “We can make a faithful replica of the virus packaging that holds everything together. The idea is to figure out what makes this virus fall apart, what makes it tick, and what makes it die.”

Prepared slides

The speed of the NSF approval was impressive. Vershinin and Saffarian submitted their preliminary NSF application on Friday, March 6. Twenty-four hours later, they received preliminary approval, and by Monday, March 9, final approval was issued.

“This application of sophisticated physics instruments and methods to understand how the 2019 coronavirus will behave as the weather changes is a clear example of how our investment in basic research years later prepares us for a response to a crisis that impacts not only our society, but also the whole world,”said Krastan Blagoev, program director in NSF’s Division of Physics.

Abhi Sharma

“You don’t just gain the insight that you want by looking at the virus on a large scale. Looking at a single virus particle is the key to being able to tease out what’s going on,” said the researchers. “Modern biology and biophysics allow us to ask these questions in a way we never could before.”

Saffarian and Vershinin are both members of the Center for Cell and Genome Sciences in the Crocker Science Center, where scientists who apply physics, chemistry and biology work alongside each other and can form collaborations rapidly—a key advantage in the fight against the virus.

Michael Vershinin, Abhi Sharma, Ben Preece, Heather Swann, Saveez Saffarian

Research Funding was provided by NSF under award number PHY- 2026657 for nearly $200,000.


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