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Infectious disease

Coronavirus puts science to the test

A new generation of technologies being used for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of COVID-19 will be pressure tested amid a pandemic

by Lisa M. Jarvis
April 9, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 14
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Credit: NIH/NIAID | An electron micrograph of a cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow)

 

On April 2, 2020, the coronavirus pandemic reached a grim milestone: more than 1 million people had been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the respiratory disease COVID-19, and over 50,000 had died.

The figure would have been remarkable if not for other, much more terrifying ones. For example, 100,000–240,000: the number of people projected, in a best-case scenario, to die in the US alone.

The expected devastation brings into stark relief the need to better prepare for emerging pathogenic threats. World leaders are enforcing social-distancing measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but everyone is asking how we can respond faster and more wisely next time.

For scientists, the pandemic presents the challenge of a lifetime. They are tasked with understanding the intricacies of a new pathogen—including the minute details of SARS-CoV-2’s various proteins and the pernicious way it spreads and interacts with its hosts. Every piece of information they get is a clue about how to take it down. While that fundamental biology is being unraveled, researchers are working to diagnose, treat, and prevent COVID-19.

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As Harvard University chemical biologist David Liu puts it, “COVID-19 is a scientific challenge—how to stop 29,905 RNA bases in a lipid, protein, and sugar shell from entering and replicating in our cells—and it will ultimately be solved by science.”

In recent weeks, C&EN has laid out the rationale for testing existing drugs against the coronavirus. Our reporters have broken down the science for using Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir, an antiviral developed for Ebola; picked apart what we do and do not know about the antimalarial treatments chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine; and explained why arthritis drugs called IL-6 inhibitors might help the most severely affected.

At every turn, we hope to help illuminate why a particular drug could be useful while also making clear the many caveats to every approach.

In this package, we continue that effort by exploring programs that have started from scratch. Scientists are working at breakneck speeds to develop new diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments that are fine-tuned to this virus. New diagnostic tools have proliferated, while a handful of new drugs and vaccines are on the cusp of entering—or in some cases have already entered—clinical trials. Many of these projects rely on newer technologies, like the gene-editing tool CRISPR or gene-based vaccines, that have enabled rapid product development. But they have also yet to be proven, and they face a pressure test that could have consequences well beyond this outbreak.

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