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Coronaviruses are responsible for 30% of human common colds.  More seriously they are responsible for SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory System).  In just over a decade, both SARS and MERS are two brand new viruses that have arisen from coronavirus.  SARS has a 10% mortality rate and its viral relative MERS has a 40% mortality rate.  The emergence of new coronaviruses has the potential risk of causing pandemic if not addressed.

Coronavirus – The Basics:

  • It’s an RNA enveloped virus
  • It’s named for the crown or halo looking appearance of the peplomers (viral spikes) around the virus surface. Corona means crown or halo in Latin.
  • It was first discovered in the 1960s, origin still unknown.
  • It employs Zoonotic Transfer – the ability to be transmitted between species.
  • Currently, there is no drug treatment available

RNA viruses do not typically have a proof reading system.  This results in mistakes in their genetic code,  triggering adaptations, mutations, and increased genetic diversity.  This is one of the reasons why there are new strains of the flu every season, people keep catching colds throughout their lives, and why SARS and MERS have emerged in the past decade.

Mark Denison M.D. of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine partnered with Ralph Baric, PhD of University of North Carolina and Gilead Sciences to screen compounds to identify ones that could demonstrate activity against coronoviruses.  Two nucleoside analogue (class of antiviral) compounds were identified.  This is surprising because previous nucleoside analogues screened against coronaviruses had shown to be ineffective. 

The active compound, GS-5734, is already in clinical development for the treatment of Ebola virus.  Denison’s team screened, tested, and developed prodrugs based on the compounds.  The compound,GS-5734, was found to have both prophylactic (before infection) and early therapeutic (soon after injection) when tested in a SARS mouse model by reducing the viral load in the lungs and improving respiratory function.  

“This compound shows broad activity against a variety of human and animal coronaviruses and represents an exciting potential therapeutic for a family of viruses prone to emergence from animal reservoirs,” Denison said. (

The joint collaboration between public and private institutions observed here has the potential not only to develop the first antiviral for coronaviruses, but also utilizing the viral mechanisms uncovered, can target future mutations  potentially proving to be able to deter the pandemic risk inherent in this type of virus.

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Antiviral inhibits epidemic SARS, MERS and animal coronaviruses (28 Jun 2017).
Buguliskis, Jeffrey S. (28 Jun 2017).  SARS and MERS Inhibited by Ebola Drug.
T.P. Sheahan el al., “Broad-spectrum antiviral GS-5734 inhibits both epidemic and zoonotic coronaviruses,” Science Translational Medicine (2017).