Prior to 2020, there were two major outbreaks of coronaviruses. In 2003, an outbreak of SARS-CoV sickened 8098 people and killed 774. In 2012, an outbreak of MERS-CoV began which so far has sickened 2553 and killed 876. Although the overall number of MERS cases is low, the disease has a high fatality rate, and new cases are still being reported. Even though fatality rates are high for these two outbreaks, containment was quickly achieved. This makes development of a treatment not commercially viable so no one had undertaken a large effort to develop an approved treatment for either coronavirus infection.
Fast forward to late 2019/2020… well, you know what has happened. There is currently no reliable antiviral treatment for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 infections.
Zhang, et al. thought of a way to make an antiviral treatment commercially viable. If the treatment is actually a broad-spectrum antiviral, it could be used to treat more than one infection, meaning, it can be used to treat more people and thus be seen as more valuable and worth the financial risk to pharmaceutical companies. So, they decided to look at the similarities between coronaviruses and enteroviruses.
Once the purview of virology researchers, the word “coronavirus” is now part of the vernacular in the mainstream media as reports of quarantined cruise ships (1) and makeshift hospitals (2) fill our online news feeds. While there is currently no approved anti-viral treatment for coronavirus infection (3), a team led by researchers from Vanderbilt University recently published work characterizing the anti-CoV activity of a compound, which they now plan to test against 2019-nCoV (4).
Developing New Therapeutics Against Coronaviruses
Coronaviruses (CoVs) are enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses that exhibit cross-species transmission—the ability to spread quickly from one host (e.g., civet) to another (e.g., human). Scientists classify CoVs into four groups based on the nature of the spikes on their surface: alpha (α), beta (ß), gamma (γ) and delta (δ, 1). Only the alpha- and beta-CoVs can infect humans. Four coronaviruses commonly circulate within human populations: Human CoV 229E (HCoV229E), HCoVNL63, HCoVOC43, and HCoVHKU1. Three other CoVs have emerged as infectious agents, jumping from their normal animal host species to humans: SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and most recently, 2019-nCoV (5).