INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There are reports of over 92,000 worldwide cases of the coronavirus. The virus has killed at least 3,200 with a majority in mainland China. There have been nine reported deaths in the U.S.
The World Health Organization is working around the clock with the world’s top scientists to try to develop a vaccine. It says it may take about a year to develop, but treatment drugs should be available soon.
A team of researchers at Butler University is working toward a potential treatment for the coronavirus. They are putting their focus on a protein that the virus needs to function to replicate or spread. It’s something they were studying before this major outbreak.
“The students have been working on this project for the last 2-3 years,” explained Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Christopher Stobart. “They didn’t know that this was going to become the next outbreak, the next epidemic.”
Stobart is leading the research team.
“What we’re trying to do is identify parts of this protein that the virus has been utilizing, parts of this protein are essential for its activity so that we can develop drugs and therapeutics to target that protein and effectively shut down the virus,” explained Stobart. “Right now, there are no effective drugs or vaccines out there that are being used, that have been developed specifically for this coronavirus. It’s a new novel pathogen.”
He said the team is studying “mouse hepatitis virus,” which is a coronavirus of its own. It is safe to study and cannot spread or infect humans. It affects mice the same way the coronavirus affects humans, so it allows the team to study the effect on the protein they’re targeting.
If the team can develop a drug or therapeutic to stop that protein from functioning, it can stop the spread of the virus, effectively killing it.
“Our hope is the next step would be to work with someone to develop a drug to target that region,” Stobart said. “If effective, get this thing moving forward for treatment of current and future outbreaks.”
Stobart explains this is the 7th coronavirus that’s infected humans, but this particular strain has never been in humans before.
“We don’t know what this virus is like,” he said. “This virus because we have no preexisting knowledge of what this thing’s going look like, how it spreads, we’re having to learn on the fly how to treat this, how to deal with it, and it’s emerging and it’s evolving as it’s spreading from person to person.”
That’s where scientists and research teams around the world are having some trouble. The coronavirus is spreading rapidly as teams are studying the virus and working on a treatment.
“Unlike SARS and MERS, where you would only spread the virus if you were symptomatic, this pathogen has shown that it can spread asymptomatically,” Stobart explains. “Because of that, it’s more difficult to quarantine.”
Stobart says he understands the alarm about the coronavirus.
“I think because we don’t know what this coronavirus is, what it’s doing, how it’s evolving — that unknown is what’s caused this alarm.” But Stobart goes on to say, “The flu is far more of an issue right now than the coronavirus is.”
It’s important to note that the death rate is about 2%. Some people who have gotten the virus have recovered. People with a weaker immune system, typically those who are very young or elderly, have a greater chance of the virus affecting them more seriously.
“The nature of coronaviruses in humans is not new, it’s not novel,” Stobart said. “They’ve been infecting humans for over 50 years, to our knowledge.”
But he adds, “While there is a lot of cases of death, it’s still relatively low compared to historic pathogens we’ve had in the past.”
He agrees with the World Health Organization and other health officials that the best thing people can do right now is the be aware and actively stop the spread of coronavirus the best they can.
“People need to use good personal hygiene, washing their hands, being aware of their surroundings, being aware of what they’re touching, what they’re doing, when they’re in the public,” explained Stobart. “I think that if we are cautious that we can control the spread of this outbreak.”