Main content
Emory scientists part of global team tracking SARS-CoV-2 variant immunology
Media Contact
Quinn Eastman
Emory virologists Rama Amara and Mehul Suthar

Mehul Suthar (left) is senior co-corresponding author and Rama Amara is a co-author of a paper outlining goals of the SAVE program, where researchers are assessing whether mutations in emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants affect virus transmission, severity and immunity.

Scientists from around the world are banding together to save the world from deadly mutants.

That announcement might sound like it belongs in one of Marvel Studios’ Avengers movies, but it actually comes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. 

A paper published March 31 in Nature outlines the goals of the SAVE (SARS-CoV-2 Assessment of Viral Evolution) program. The NIAID Now Blog compares SAVE to the Avengers, since its members are “like comic book heroes fighting various mutant threats.”

In the SAVE program, researchers assess whether mutations in emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants such as Delta and Omicron affect virus transmission, severity and immunity, which in turn supports the testing of vaccines and therapeutics and guides public health responses.

While Emory Vaccine Center virologist Mehul Suthar was not frozen in Arctic ice for decades like Captain America, he is senior co-corresponding author of the Nature paper, together with 128 colleagues from the United States, Japan, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Israel.

“The SAVE program has helped bring together experts in many fields to accelerate the pace of studying how SARS-CoV-2 variants impact vaccine immunity,” Suthar says.

Assembled in January 2021, SAVE draws on investigators from around the world who specialize in relevant research fields such as viruses, the immune system, vaccines, epidemiology, structural biology, bioinformatics, virus genetics, and evolution.

Suthar and his laboratory have been evaluating whether new variants can escape vaccine- and infection-induced antibodies. They do so by testing whether antibody samples, obtained from participants in clinical studies, can neutralize the viral variants when grown in culture.

Suthar’s lab is thus part of the “In Vitro” group, one of three working groups of SAVE investigators, along with the Early Detection and Analysis group and the In Vivo group. Depending on the variant in question, Suthar has collaborated with other members of SAVE such as Pei-Yong Shi at University of Texas Medical Branch to obtain samples of the latest SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Rama Amara, like Suthar based at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, is a co-author on the Nature paper and has been studying vaccine protection in animal models.

The Amara lab — part of the In Vivo group — is currently comparing mRNA against protein-based vaccines (Moderna vs Novavax) when deployed as boosters. In addition, his laboratory is testing if an Omicron-specific vaccine is superior to current vaccines when deployed as boosters against BA.1 or BA.2, considered subvariants of Omicron.

“One of the unique things about the SAVE In Vivo group is that they are well prepared to test the effectiveness of the current vaccines against future new variants within few weeks after their emergence,” Amara says.

One example of Emory researchers’ work, a report on the Omicron variant, was published in January in Cell Reports Medicine, after being posted on the preprint server biorxiv. This confirmed that vaccines approved against the original SARS-CoV-2, such as those from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, would be less effective against Omicron.

Looking ahead, the SAVE investigators note that several other aspects of SARS-CoV-2 biology remain relatively unexplored, such as effects of mutations in the viral spike protein on the process of infection at the cellular level.

The Nature paper also acknowledges how the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the process of publishing research results. SAVE researchers shared data from studies on the Omicron variant with government agencies and submitted them as manuscripts online prior to peer-review – something rarely done before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The head-to-head comparison, review and discussion of unpublished data has yielded real-time peer review that would otherwise take months to achieve,” the paper says.

The SAVE investigators conclude that their collaboration is a template for rapidly developing and sharing resources that will be beneficial in future efforts against other rapidly evolving pathogens.

Recent News