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Infectious Diseases

Updated 13 March 2020

Researchers identify potential coronavirus vaccine target

As experts further explore the new strain of coronavirus in labs, they're coming closer to developing antibodies that may reduce the rate at which the new virus infects cells.

The number of coronavirus cases worldwide has surpassed 120 000 and stringent measures are being taken in countries such as Italy to try and contain infections.

Researchers are actively looking for ways to prevent new infections by targeting the new virus, which is officially named SARS-Cov-2, but referred to as the Covid-19 virus to prevent unnecessary confusion and panic.

This new strain of coronavirus, first identified in December 2019, is similar to the coronavirus strains that caused the SARS and MERS outbreaks a number of years ago. 

Two new studies were recently published in the journal Cell, explaining why the Covid-19 virus is spreading so easily and how it adheres to cells.

According to the research, the Covid-19 virus uses the same way to enter cells as SARS-Cov did in 2003, leading scientists to look at ways to disrupt the process – with the help of enzyme inhibitors and antibodies.

How exactly does a coronavirus infect your cells?

We are told that you get infected with the new coronavirus into your system and can become potentially sick with Covid-19 by inhaling droplets coughed out by sick people, but exactly how you can get sick is a bit more complicated.

The new virus can be defined as an enveloped RNA virus. This means that an envelope plays a strong role in helping the virus survive when it attaches to its host, and that this envelope was encoded by the last cell it infected.

When these viruses infect a cell, it happens in two stages:

  • Firstly, the new coronavirus connects with a receptor on its target cell.
  • Secondly, the virus “sheds” its envelope to fuse with the cell it attaches to. This makes the virus strong and helps it to survive.

By understanding how exactly the cells react, researchers are more easily able to come up with a way to halt the process.

"Unravelling which cellular factors are used by SARS-CoV-2 (the Covid-19 virus) for entry might provide insights into viral transmission and reveal therapeutic targets,” according to the authors of one of the new papers in Cell.

How a vaccine is developed

The researchers also studied whether there are any human antibodies that could help prevent the entry of the new coronavirus into cells.

According to a news report, they found that antibodies against the virus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003 could potentially reduce the infection of this new virus. This was only achieved in a laboratory environment, but holds great promise.

“Although confirmation with infectious virus is pending, our results indicate that neutralising antibody responses raised against SARS-Cov (the 2003 SARS virus) could offer some protection against the latest SARS-CoV-2 (the Covid-19 virus) infection, which may have implications for outbreak control,” the team revealed in the paper.

And this is not the only research to use potential antibodies in a vaccine. Another team from the University of Washington in Seattle provided more evidence that the virus enters target cells via an enzyme could ACE2, according to another paper published in Cell.

The roll of this ACE2 enzyme was discussed in a previous Health24 article on why the new virus spreads so easily. 

Light at the end of the tunnel

It’s important to reiterate that while research looks promising, more testing and clinical trials are still required. 

READ | Why exactly does the coronavirus spread so easily among people?

READ | What is the difference between Covid-19 and coronavirus?

READ | Yes, washing our hands really can help curb the spread of coronavirus

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