NC researchers are helping lead the coronavirus fight

 Samples of the virus derived from the first U.S. case arrived in labs at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in early February.

February 10, 2020 

North Carolina researchers are trying to find treatments for COVID-19

  Scientists believe SARS-CoV-2 the virus that causes COVID-19 began in a cave in Wuhan, China. It came from bats that eventually wound up in China’s open-air markets, where live animals are in cages and in a perfect spot to transmit viruses to people. The spread of the novel coronavirus at the center of a worldwide public health emergency could be slowed by scientists almost 8,000 miles away in North Carolina. Researchers from the state’s academic community as well as companies in the biotech sector are scrambling to understand the virus and develop new drugs to fight it. Samples of the virus derived from the first U.S. case, a 35-year old man from the state of Washington, arrived in labs at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in early February. They were sent from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The Gillings School is one of only a handful of labs nationwide to receive the samples. Since then, a team of 30 virologists at the lab, clad in head-to-toe Tyvek body suits and wearing respirators are growing more of the virus, scrambling to find a therapy or vaccine that could slow the virus’ spread. The UNC team has narrowed their search to about 100 drugs that are likely to show promise.

“The goal of our program is to find broad-based inhibitors that work against everything in the virus family,” said Ralph Baric, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Gillings School, in a story for Bloomberg. “I have a lot of people who are really tired. They are working really hard.”

Baric is one the nation’s leading experts on coronaviruses. While the world may be focused on what is officially known as coronavirus SARS- CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, it turns out there are a lot of coronaviruses. His lab has studied many of them for more than three decades.

Coronaviruses are so named because of the crown-like spikes that help them invade cells. The viruses also have an extraordinarily high ability to mutate and adapt. They all follow a similar pattern. The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002 originated in bats in China. So did a similar SARS-like virus in 2015. The MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2012 started in camels. More than 1600 people died in those outbreaks.

Other North Carolina researchers include:

At Duke University, Gregory Gray, M.D., is an infectious disease epidemiologist in the School of Medicine, the Duke Global Health Institute and Duke Nicholas School of the Environment. He is overseeing a clinical trial of a vaccine to combat the SARS-CoV2 virus.

In addition, four North Carolina-based biotech companies are working on drugs and diagnostics to combat COVID-19.

Heat Biologics, Morrisville- Developing a medication to boost the immune system against coronaviruses.
BioMedomics, Durham- Developing a COVID-19 test kit.
Atom Bioworks, Cary- Using artificial intelligence and synthetic DNA to identify and treat coronaviruses
BioCryst, Durham- developing a broad-spectrum antiviral therapy.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.

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