Scientists working on drug treatments for COVID-19 at Mount Sinai in New York.

Victor J. Blue / Courtesy of The New York Times

Scientists working on drug treatments for COVID-19 at Mount Sinai in New York.

March 31, 2020

Virology Professor Weighs in on a Potential COVID-19 Cure

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During this period of uncertainty, scientists are working rapidly to develop a cure for COVID-19. Many wonder what this treatment will look like, whether it is an already developed antiviral drug — such as those that treat malaria or ebola — or a potential vaccine.

Prof. Gary Whittaker, microbiology and immunology, who has studied coronaviruses for almost 20 years, spoke to The Sun on why certain antiviral drugs may not work.

For viruses to infect a cell, the virus and cell membranes fuse together with the help of proteins on the cell’s surface. Whittaker’s lab performs comparative analyses across different kinds of viruses and focuses on the ways in which viruses gain entry to cells and evolve to infect cells.

“Approximately every eight to 10 years, there is a new coronavirus coming out of animals,” Whittaker said. “Unless we change something radically, it will happen again, and we want to try to be ready for it even more than ever now with drugs or vaccines that are broadly acting. That’s the ultimate goal.”

In the long term, the lab aims to create a more universal approach in finding a treatment that could act for many kinds of coronaviruses, including those that have yet to appear.

Currently, the lab is trying to determine what is unique about the activation mechanism of COVID-19 compared to the other coronaviruses it has studied.

“We are looking at common features and comparing and contrasting between what happens with influenza, with what happens with coronavirus, with what happens with ebola and other viruses that we are interested in,” Whittaker said.

The nature of the coronavirus is zoonotic — a disease that originated from animals and can transmit to humans — making humans a highly susceptible population.

“The human population has never seen [COVID-19] and there’s no built-in immunity at a population level to prevent that virus from spreading to every single person,” Whittaker said.

Viruses with zoonotic sources are not necessarily more fatal to humans than non-zoonotic sources, according to Whittaker.

“There’s nothing inherently more dangerous about animal viruses, it’s just that they are strategically very different,” he said.

Although viruses are always mutating and may mutate to be more or less lethal, “There isn’t any reason at this point to be concerned about the virus mutating and becoming more deadly,” Whittaker said.

According to Whittaker, it is essential to “blunt the curve” as much as possible to help at-risk populations who are most affected by the virus. However, the people affected by the virus are not solely the elderly or immunocompromised. According to a March Chinese Centers for Disease Control study, men seem to be more affected by the virus than women and children.

“The original idea was that it was going to be 80-year-olds and above that would have a problem, but it turns out to be not quite like that. There have been a lot of surprises along the way and that’s one of them,” Whittaker said.

While the world waits for a vaccine, Whittaker predicts that it will take at least a year for a vaccine to be made for the coronavirus.

Approving vaccines requires a lengthy process before reaching the public. Ideas tend to start in labs like Whittaker’s, then an animal model is conducted for promising vaccines before they go for human clinical trials.

“We have to be careful not to rush these vaccines into the world too fast because we need to make sure they’re safe and not problematic,” Whittaker said.

Some antiviral drugs have seen more encouraging outcomes in clinical trials than others, such as flu drugs like Favipiravir or Avigan. It is possible that drugs designed for one purpose can affect a different part of the body.

One tested anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, that is now mainly used for lupus patients, had “some type of anti-inflammatory action that wasn’t really predicted,” Whittaker said.

It is difficult to predict how long the pandemic will last, but Whittaker urged the community to be ready in the fall, whether or not there is a treatment plan put in place by then.

“If things do quiet down in the summer, the virus may still be in the community at a low level, and when college students come back on campus and school children go back to school, we may see a surge of infections in the fall,” Whittaker said. “We have to be ready for that.”