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Scientific Strategies For Combating Coronavirus

A Visual Tour Of Scientific Strategies For Combating Coronavirus

Scientists worldwide have united against a common enemy: COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Their aim? Slow and eventually stop the pandemic by joining forces and working rapidly on near-term and long-term solutions.

The following collection of images illustrates the range of ideas, from repurposing existing medicines to developing vaccines to searching for completely new ways to attack coronaviruses.

In the near term, researchers are focused on repurposing existing medicines. Existing medicines are available now and researchers already know a lot about how safe they are and how they work. Small studies in patients with COVID-19 suggest that some have the potential to help. But questions remain. Well-controlled, large-scale studies will help scientists determine the appropriate use of existing medicines to help COVID-19 patients.

In the long term, scientists aim to create new interventions that specifically address COVID-19. Making completely new medicines will take longer than repurposing existing drugs. Vaccines may take 12 to 18 months to be approved. Novel antivirals against coronaviruses could take years to discover and develop. If researchers are successful, however, COVID-19 could become a worry of the past.

Can We Quiet An Overactive Immune System With Existing Medicines?

Some patients with severe COVID-19 illness could be experiencing an immune system overreaction triggered by the virus rather than damage from the virus itself. As shown here, the overreaction affects the lungs. It gums up the walls of tiny air sacs and prevents oxygen from crossing into the bloodstream. Image by Mark Mazaitis.

To cause an infection, a coronavirus first attaches to the outside of a human cell before penetrating the cell’s membranes. Once inside, the virus releases its contents and hijacks the cell’s machinery for creating large molecules called proteins.

That’s just the opening sequence. Like a TikTok dance, the steps get more complicated from there, including protein chopping, repetitive copying and more.

Existing medicines with so-called “antiviral properties” have the potential to interrupt different steps of this process. For instance, a drug might block the virus from entering a cell by preventing it from grabbing hold of the cell in the first place. Another drug might change the environment inside of cells and make it harder for the virus to release its contents.

Existing medicines were not designed with coronavirus in mind. And their structures were not optimized to interfere with the replication of COVID-19. But they might still have general antiviral effects that could help patients. The global scientific community is testing these ideas rigorously to learn more about how patients with COVID-19 respond to these medicines.

Novartis scientists, for example, are collaborating with medical investigators to support trials and donating medicines that have a scientific rationale suggesting they could help patients. Novartis is also launching trials of its own to learn more about which drugs work for whom and why. These trials could also help researchers understand when not to use an existing medicine, as individual differences can influence responses to a medicine.