Scientists around the globe and across disciplines are racing to better understand the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The better they understand the virus—officially named SARS-CoV-2—the better they can hamper its spread and treat those already infected. Some of the foundational work to fight SARS-CoV-2 is being done by researchers who work for, or whose work is funded by, the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Let’s look at some of the major steps since the discovery of the disease—just four short months ago—and recognize the extraordinary efforts of the global community of researchers, along with labs, clinicians, drug development companies and public health officials, that have accelerated our understanding of the coronavirus.
Sped Up Gene Sequencing
The first mysterious cases of pneumonia that would lead doctors to discover the novel coronavirus appeared in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. By January 11, 2020, researchers in China had sequenced the genome—an organism’s complete set of genetic material that can serve as a blueprint—of the virus and published it online. Through genome sequencing, researchers determine the identity and order of each individual unit of genetic material within an organism. Advances in research, including the work sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute Genome Technology Program, allowed the coronavirus genome to be sequenced so quickly.
Understanding the Coronas
Armed with these blueprints, scientists were able to make further advancements in their work to neutralize the virus. NIH-funded researchers at the University of Texas at Austin used the information from that blueprint to take a very detailed picture of one piece of the virus. Like other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 is round with little nodules, or crown-like “spikes,” protruding from its surface. The Austin researchers imaged these spikes—which are what the virus uses to enter cells.
With this detailed information about a key part of the virus, other scientists are now working on ways to block those spikes from taking hold. They’re also developing new tests that can recognize if a person has previously been infected by the virus.
An image of the novel coronavirus. The black arrows point to the “spikes.” Image courtesy of NIH.
3D model of the novel coronavirus “spike.” Image courtesy of NIH.
A Vaccine on the Horizon?
A coalition of researchers from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the biotechnology company Moderna is also targeting the spikes for a potential vaccine. This team had already been working on a closely related virus before this outbreak and was able to quickly switch out the spike of that other coronavirus with the spike from SARS-CoV-2 to develop a possible vaccine.
The NIAID/Moderna coalition began the first human trial of its spike-targeting vaccine just 63 days after the Chinese team published the SARS-CoV-2 genome. This early trial, called a Phase I clinical trial, is only looking to see if a vaccine is safe in healthy adults and whether those adults show signs that their body is responding to the vaccine. Phase II and phase III trials will also be necessary before we can be sure that the vaccine is safe for the general public. While this was the first vaccine trial to start in the U.S., it has already been followed by others.
Every day, scientists make new discoveries about SARS-CoV-2. Their colleagues build on those discoveries to move us closer to ways to treat and prevent COVID-19. With each new step, we witness the momentum of the scientific process and the vital nature of global scientific collaboration.