a research associate at the university of texas holds a syringe in one hand and a test tube in another while working on researching coronavirus treatment


Universities Are Leading the Fight Against Coronavirus

Researchers at American schools are tackling the complex work of developing ways to combat the disease

What began as a mysterious, flu-like illness sickening people in Wuhan, China, has become a global health crisis.

Since the first reports of coronavirus—officially novel coronavirus (COVID-19)—made headlines in December 2019, the disease has upended daily lives and economies around the world. Nearly 90,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in more than 50 countries, with close to 80,000 reported in China alone. To date more than 3,000 people have died due to the disease.

Quarantines have left city centers in China and other parts of Asia deserted. Coronavirus cases have been reported in Australia, France, Germany, Iran, and Italy. A cruise ship with infected travelers was kept at sea for days off the coast of Japan. Travel restrictions have been instituted at major international airports in the United States. And the global financial markets have suffered their worst losses since the Great Recession in 2008.

The human and economic toll of coronavirus has led the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare it a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30. WHO hasn’t called it a pandemic but is clearly concerned about the spread of coronavirus. “Our epidemiologists have been monitoring these developments continuously, and we have now increased our assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at a global level,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on February 28.

A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she rides a bike in a nearly empty street in Beijing, China

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she rides a bike in the street on February 26, 2020 in Beijing, China.

The rapid spread of the disease has fueled the urgency for finding a treatment. Researchers at American universities have led the effort, with the work of three schools demonstrating the complexity of the task.

Some early efforts began at Colorado State University, which has a history of investigating Ebola and Zika. They began working to identify how COVID-19 spreads and how to test for it outside of a hospital or doctor’s office. They’ve also looked at how COVID-19 differs from other strains of coronavirus, like SARS and MERS. And that led the team to bats.

“Bats have learned how to carry the virus and not get it,” CSU Vice President for Research Alan Rudolph told the Coloradoan. At a panel discussion in Fort Collins earlier this month, Rebekah Kading, CSU associate professor of microbiology, immunology, and pathology added, “We want to understand more about the circulation of viruses and that human-bat interface.”

At the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research, researchers are working to solve this coronavirus outbreak by working with the disease hands-on. In mid-February, it received vials of 50 million COVID-19 particles to investigate developing a possible vaccine. Dr. Paul Duprex, the center’s director, and his team have used those vials to create billions of COVID-19 particles using monkey cells.

“We want to keep [working] with early pathogen stocks,” Dr. Duprex told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The closer you stay to what it was when it came from a person, it’s a way of de-risking and getting genetic changes.”

Jason S. McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences, left, and a male graduate student Daniel Wrapp, right, work in the McLellan Lab at the University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas at Austin

Jason S. McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences, left, and graduate student Daniel Wrapp, right, work in the McLellan Lab at the University of Texas at Austin Monday Feb. 17, 2020.

On the University of Texas at Austin campus, scientists made a major breakthrough in early February when they created the first 3D atomic scale map of the virus’s spike protein, which is what attaches to and infects human cells. It’s a crucial step in developing vaccines and treatments to combat the disease. And like the CSU team, UT Austin researchers have a long history of studying SARS and MERS.

“As soon as we knew this was a coronavirus, we felt we had to jump at it because we could be one of the first ones to get this structure,” Jason McLellan, the associate professor who led the research, told UT News. “We knew exactly what mutations to put into this, because we’ve already shown these mutations work for a bunch of other coronaviruses.” 

a 3d atomic scale map, or molecular structure, of the novel coronavirus spike protein. it is shape like a cone with the wide end at the top, with gray running down the right side and red, blue, yellow, and green sinews running down the left

University of Texas at Austin

This is a 3D atomic scale map, or molecular structure, of the 2019-nCoV spike protein. This structure represents the protein before it infects a cell, called the prefusion conformation.

While these teams continue working on a treatment, a fourth institution is looking beyond novel coronavirus.

Dr. David Ho is a professor of medicine at Columbia University and the director of its Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center. With a $2.1 million grant from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, cofounder of Alibaba, Dr. Ho is leading a team searching for a COVID-19 treatment. But its long-term goal is to build a database of treatments to combat future outbreaks of other strains of coronavirus.

“We need to find permanent solutions,” Dr. Ho told Time. “We should not repeat the mistake we made after SARS and after MERS, that once the epidemic wanes, the interest and the political will and the funding also wanes. If we had followed through with the work that had begun with SARS, we would be so much better off today.”