Scientists have taken a major step forward in developing a vaccine against the coronavirus that’s now claimed more than 2,000 lives worldwide by mapping the part of the virus that allows it to infect human cells.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are the first in the world to make a 3D model of the virus, according to their study, published Wednesday.
The team there had been studying related viruses – those behind the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2012 MERS outbreak – for years, and that gave them a leg up in researching the new virus.
Scientists in Texas have mapped a recreated protein spike on the outside of the coronavirus that lets it infect human cells (seen in the above image of the virus) and think it could be the key to developing a vaccine for the virus that has infected more than 75,000
In less than a month, they were able to work out and model the shape of the ‘spike’ protein on the surface of the new virus, SARS-CoV-2, and recreate it.
They’ve now reproduced that spike, which can trigger an immune response in people – and could be the key to a vaccine or treatment for the virus that has infected more than 75,000 people globally.
In fact, UT scientists have already partnered with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a drug company and say their approach is on track to be ‘one of the fastest’ to create a vaccine, which could be ready in as little as 18 months.
‘As soon as we knew this was a coronavirus, we felt we had to jump at it,’ said Dr. Jason McLellan said, who led the research team, ‘because we could be one of the first ones to get this structure’.
‘We knew exactly what mutations to put into this, because we’ve already shown these mutations work for a bunch of other coronaviruses’.
Coronaviruses, as a family, are named by the resemblance of their shape to a corona, or crown (not to be confused, as many social media users have done, with the beer).
Bacteria are cells, made up of organelles, the same basic structures that make up humans, animals and plants, but viruses are built different.
Instead, they consist of just either DNA or RNA, enclosed by a protein shell, called a capsid. Some have an additional outer layer.
One virus differs from another in its genetic makeup – the RNA and DNA – and the proteins on its exterior that give it the ability to penetrate the membranes of other cells.
Coronaviruses are ringed by spiked shells that give them the resemblance of a crown.
These spike proteins appear as slightly fuzzy points protruding from the circumference of each virus particle in the vibrant photos released by the NIH.
Sequencing the new virus’s spike proteins is what allowed other NIH scientists – namely, Michael Letko and Vincent Munster – to identify it as a close relative of SARS.
Cases of the virus have now well-surpassed 75,000 and more than 2,000 have died
Health care workers monitor the condition of a coronavirus patient. Understanding the virus’s structure, they hope, will help scientists find treatments and vaccines more quickly
This artist’s rendering show the coronavirus’s protein shell, or capsid in blue
And its similarity to SARS led the World Health Organization to not only name the virus SARS-CoV-2 (and the disease it causes COVID-19), but to create a naming convention that links the two viruses together.
Now, the UT scientists have recreated that spike and mapped its structure, a crucial step to expediting vaccine development by them or any other labs.
‘The structure itself isn’t a vaccine,’ Dr McLellan told DailyMail.com.
‘What could be is the protein that we produced to determine the structure.’
In other words, the mock components they’ve made of this and other coronaviruses can set off a series of immune system reactions that could fight off the infection.
‘When we inject them into mice, we get these really robust responses so we’re feeling confident that the same stabilized spike [component] could work like it has with [other coronaviruses].’
Dr McLellan and his lab have partnered with the drug company Moderna Therapeutics, as well as the NIH, to take the next steps in producing a vaccine.
He told DailyMail.com that Moderna is among a select few companies that produce vaccines in a much faster way than most do.
‘It’s incredibly rapid and perfect for this kind of epidemic,’ Dr McLellan said.
‘We could begin phase one clinical trials in a month or two.’
Before those early trials in people can start they have to test the potential shot in animals and the full trial process and development are likely to take between 18 months and two years.
‘But that’s incredibly fast compared to the decade it would take to develop many vaccines,’ said Dr McLelland.
Their spike structure map could also be a key to the development of treatments for COVID-19, the condition triggered by the virus.
A race is on around the globe as scientists and drug companies attempt to make vaccines and treatments.
At least four groups in the US have thrown their hats in the vaccine ring.
In addition to testing the viability of their molecular recreation of the coronavirus’s surface spike to use as a vaccine, the scientists hope to use their molecule to find antibodies made by the bodies of people who get the infection and recover.
Finding the antibodies would let the researchers isolate them and potentially design a treatment that could introduce the infection-fighting cells earlier than our immune systems would naturally start doing so.
The team also immediately submitted their map of the protein spike to an international database, which is inexplicably not publishing it until next Wednesday, so that others can use their discovery to more quickly develop vaccines and drugs.
‘So in the meantime, we’re just emailing it to anyone who asks,’ says Dr McLelland. And that’s about 30 people a day, he claims.
Viral particles (yellow) can invade various types of human and animal tissues (red and gray). SARS-CoV-2 is adept at attacking respiratory tissues