The coronavirus can now be grown in the laboratory. His genome has also been sequenced at several locations around the world. What does this mean for the management of this epidemiological crisis? We’re taking stock.
The epidemic of the coronavirus 2019-nCov shows this Friday, January 31, 2020 a balance sheet of 9,700 infected people, 213 deaths and 187 recoveries. The World Health Organization has also just described the epidemic as a “public health emergency of international concern“. In France, six people are treated in isolation because they are infected with the coronavirus. At the moment, even if the situation is not as serious as the atmosphere suggests, the fact that 2019-nCov is a new coronavirus is a problem: we don’t have a treatment or a vaccine. But the research is progressing, and it’s progressing well.
The last few days have been full of important advances. Among them: this week, an Australian laboratory was the first to officially reveal that it had “grown” the virus in a laboratory. For Tania Louis, a virologist and science popularizer, this is a “key step” that is a “technical feat“. But she warns from the outset: the cultivation of a virus should not be confused with its synthesis. Why are you being so specific?
Why are you being so specific? They have isolated the strain of the virus, taken from a patient, to keep it in the laboratory and study it,” the virologist said. A coronavirus of this type has a very large genome, it clearly cannot be easily ‘manufactured’ in any laboratory. The Australian lab is going to send samples to other labs“. The samples are sent in dry ice, which is ultra-secure: no contamination is possible and, if the ice were to melt, the virus would die. The culture of the virus is done in “high containment” laboratories. It’s safe. These details are important in the context of concern about the spread of the coronavirus and the emergence of conspiracy theories.
Map of coronavirus spread on January 31, 2020 at 12:20 p.m. // Source: Johns-Hopkins University
The Australian laboratory is not alone in this approach: the Pasteur Institute in France is also making good progress in isolating the strain. The culture of a virus in the laboratory involves reproducing the infection process but on a smaller scale: the virus is added to living cells in a nutrient medium so that the virus in question infects these cells as it multiplies. “Part of what happens in real life during the infection process is reproduced. It’s a valuable tool for basic research,” explains Tania Louis. Reproduction of the infection is only partial because this type of disease is systemic, it can be expressed in several places in the body, which cannot be observed on cells in a small box.
Many useful experiments are now possible
However, while it is not without its shortcomings, laboratory culture of the coronavirus greatly advances our understanding of the disease. “When you have virus-infected cells in the lab, you can do a lot of experiments, such as adding chemicals and seeing which ones can destroy the virus. They are small volumes, which you can control and look at under a microscope,” says Tania Louis. The virologist tells us that the laboratories will use this virus culture to test “molecules with a potential antiviral effect” and try “to obtain antibodies, which are used in diagnosis.
- Read: Coronavirus: this interactive map allows you to follow the spread of the epidemic in real time.
In the face of the 2019-nCov epidemic, the big question everyone is asking is that of vaccine development. Tania Louis confirms that growing a virus in the laboratory is an important step towards this goal, but also that it does not predict when it will be found. For SARS, the vaccine was not established until some time after the peak in the epidemic; for HIV, there is no vaccine. Cultivation of the virus also involves only one strain of the coronavirus, but there may be mutations in the genome.
The arrival of a new coronavirus, which had never been identified before, obviously poses many obstacles to containing the epidemic. But, at the moment, there is reason for optimism. “There have been two major coronavirus epidemics in the last 20 years, so there was ongoing research on this subject. Even if the viruses are different, they are from the same family, so maybe this will save us some time,” notes Tania Louis.
For the Pasteur Institute, a vaccine could be available within 20 months, but that’s not important in the short term.
It is unlikely that a vaccine will be found in time for the outbreak itself. In a press conference, the Pasteur Institute said that research for a vaccine is already underway, and that it could be designed within 20 months. In the short term, it is not a vaccine that will help contain the epidemic. Laboratories are therefore looking for elements that will not only improve both the treatment of infected patients and diagnosis, but also slow the spread of the disease around the world. Establishing “the survival time of the coronavirus in the outside environment” is, as Tania Louis points out, one of the possibilities that her laboratory culture provides to improve prevention measures.
- Read: Chinese Coronavirus Epidemic: No, it’s not a pandemic yet
As with the culture of the virus in the laboratory, sequencing of the coronavirus genome is possible and is just as fundamental. On January 30, the Institut Pasteur became the first European laboratory to have sequenced the genome. Complete DNA sequencing provides a better understanding of how the coronavirus works and, as stated at the press conference, having the genetic code of the virus and its strain “allows us to develop a serology test and evaluate the presence of antibodies in patients, to better understand the pathogenesis of the virus and to develop antiviral and vaccine approaches“.
The Pasteur Institute responded in record time
The culture of the virus in the laboratory as well as its sequencing are two elements that have the merit of being encouraging in terms of the scientific advances on this new coronavirus. Even if the applications in care will not necessarily be immediate, “when you have to defend yourself against something, it is always better to understand it effectively,” notes Tania Louis. International cooperation also plays a key role, which is why the Australian laboratory will be sending samples around the world. “We move faster if several teams work on it simultaneously,” explains the virologist.
In the end, what should also be retained from what Tania Louis told us or from what emerges from the press conferences given by the laboratories is that it is almost counterproductive to seek assertions about the current situation. From a scientific point of view, speculation about the severity of the virus and its management is currently based on little: it is a process. And, reassuringly, this process is going very well. The Pasteur Institute mobilized on the problem in record time and the isolation of the strain was “extremely rapid“.
Tania Louis has made a synthetic video for popularizing science in which she answers many questions that everyone is asking. We invite you to check it out on its Youtube channel. We also advise you to remain vigilant against conspiracy theories and false information, which we are collecting in a dedicated article. To follow the evolution of the epidemic, a real-time map continuously displays the available data. Finally, containing the epidemic also consists in following some preventive measures yourself.