Understanding The Enemy
I’m a scientist who studies viruses, so if I hear about a new virus entering the human population and causing disease, I start to pay attention. When the novel coronavirus outbreak first occurred in Wuhan, China, I wasn’t particularly concerned about a global pandemic. But once it was clear that the virus could spread efficiently from person to person, I knew it was going to be much worse than the outbreaks of SARS or MERS several years earlier.
I moved very quickly to procure samples of the virus from a facility in Texas, and we had it in our lab in mid-March. We wanted to contribute to the understanding of the virus, and we initiated a collaboration with the University of California-San Francisco to look at some potential functions of viral genes. Viruses that affect humans have ways to counteract our immune defenses, and we began to look into this.
To work with the live virus, you need a biosafety-level three containment lab, which we have here at Georgia State, and you need people who are trained to work in that setting. Luckily, I have researchers with significant experience doing this kind of work with other viruses. But when you also have to be responsible and maintain social distancing and not fill the lab with a lot of people, it makes the work doubly challenging.
We have some interesting preliminary findings. We’re measuring the effectiveness of antiviral compounds, and we are beginning to understand how the virus interacts with the cell it infects. This will help identify critical functions to target with therapeutics. We’ve recently initiated a collaboration with infectious disease clinicians at Augusta University that will allow us to look at the population living in Georgia and try to determine if there are particular characteristics that predispose individuals to more severe forms of the disease.
In a way, this experience feels familiar because I’ve worked on Ebola for so long, including during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. Back then, there was a lot of excitement and concern. This feels the same, but to an even larger degree.
It’s encouraging that there’s more willingness to cooperate and share data. Scientists all over the world have pivoted to study this virus, so you feel like you’re a part of a large movement. As a result, it’s remarkable how quickly the clinical trials have started for vaccines and for antiviral drugs. It shows that science can move fast when it needs to. Of course, all these things take time to test and see if they work, but the rate at which therapies and vaccines are moving into trials is much, much faster than it has been in the past. Hopefully, we’re getting closer, although it’s not right around the corner.
Photo by Steven Thackston