How scientists are fighting the coronavirus: A three minute guide


The novel coronavirus has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation. So how are scientists responding? And what can science do
to help control the outbreak? A top priority is epidemiology. Epidemiologists are on the front line, trying
to understand how and why the virus is spreading. They gather data on the timing
and location of new cases, where new infections are coming from and how long symptoms take to appear. These data go into models that can predict
how fast the infection might spread. This is critical for both creating containment plans, and assessing whether counter-measures
are actually working. By looking at the patterns of spread,
epidemiologists can infer the mode of transmission, such as in saliva or through the air. Epidemiologists also need to know whether
people who are infected but not showing symptoms could still pass on the disease, something which would make this
coronavirus harder to wipe out. Understanding the source of the virus is also important. The virus likely originated in an animal
before jumping to a human host. Genetic analysis of samples taken from the
market in Wuhan, where the outbreak started, could tell scientists which animal
and help prevent future outbreaks. Understanding how the virus spreads
is a vital first step for containing it, but scientists also need to know
how the virus itself functions. And that is the job of virologists. Across the world, virologists are scrambling
to get their hands on physical samples of the novel coronavirus. This work involves growing the virus in cultured
cells and infecting animals in order to study it closely. There’s lots to learn. Virologists can measure the survival time
of the virus in droplets like those from a cough or a sneeze. Animal models may show how the infection
actually gets passed between individuals. And working out the structure of viral proteins
and the identity of the receptors they use to enter cells could inform potential treatments. The genome of the virus can also hold clues. Genetic sequences from dozens of patient samples
are publicly available and have already been used to develop diagnostic tests. But actual samples – in human cell cultures
and animal models – will be needed to test vaccines and drugs. This is where biomedical science comes in. Drug development is a slow process, so researchers
are having to work fast to find therapies for this new threat. One of the most powerful tools biomedical
scientists could develop is a vaccine, but this is a longer term solution. A more imminent possibility is to inject
patients with antibodies against the virus. Finding antibodies that recognise it
might not be so difficult, but mass producing enough antibodies,
even for trials, could take months. Antiviral drugs are also an option. These are small molecules that
interfere with viral replication, but developing them from scratch takes years. So researchers are hoping that drugs already developed to treat things like HIV, could prove effective and trials have already started. If counter-measures fail, coronavirus could
become what’s called ‘endemic’, recurring regularly like the flu. That would make it extremely hard to eradicate. Fighting this outbreak will require
a range of scientific tools, from genetic sequencing to mathematical modelling. And for all of that, researchers need data. Many publishers and labs have made commitments
to make all research free to access, encouraging collaboration and
prioritising global health. Time will tell how successful it will be.