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At last count, 37 scientists at Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, plus another 100 at Scripps facilities in California, are working on coronavirus research, Director of Communications Stacey Singer DeLoye said.
Their work largely falls under three categories: research to help develop drugs, vaccines and antibody treatments, said Michael Farzan, a professor who co-chairs Scripps’s Department of Immunology and Microbiology.
“We don’t know that anything’s going to be helpful but everybody’s trying to provide some helpful piece on the margins, hoping to pull everyone forward,” said Farzan, who is based in Jupiter.
And even away from Scripps campuses, Farzan said the level of cooperation is unprecedented.
Few scientists hesitate to share their findings with others, Farzan said. He and others are emailing data back and forth with people in China.
“The level of communication going on nationally and internationally is incredible,” he said.
How to make a vaccine
At Scripps in Jupiter, scientists’ vaccine work centers on where such a vaccination should trigger an immune response in the body.
Looking at the now-famous molecular image of the coronavirus, Farzan said the coronavirus’ “spikes” seem to be the best bet for a vaccine to target.
It’s a delicate process. Target the wrong part of the spike and you could actually make things worse, Farzan said.
Farzan hesitated to put a firm timeline on a vaccine’s availability. But he said it will need to clear three major hurdles: development, testing and manufacturing.
“Assuming that it’s safe, and I think that’s a reasonable assumption, they’ll be rolling it out for healthcare providers and then probably to the most vulnerable first, I hope,” he said.
Antibodies and drugs
But vaccines can be relatively ineffective for those most vulnerable to disease, he said. That’s where Farzan thinks antibodies could help.
Scripps’ antibody work concerns the parts of healthy cells that the spikes target, he said. It’s called a receptor. Farzan said scientists are trying to craft a substance in its image that could be used with an antibody cocktail.
The cocktail could treat those already infected or as a prophylaxis, meaning a preventative measure, Farzan said. They’d take a while to be publicly available, but he said they have a number of advantages.
“They’re safe. They’re long-lived in the body, 40-80 days,” Farzan said. “And they would be ideal prophylaxis, an ideal prophylaxis for, say, someone who doesn’t make a good vaccine response.”
And to boost drug development, Farzan said Scripps biologists are looking at four steps of the coronavirus’ replication process.
They’re using Scripps’s library of more 14,000 compounds to see which can thwart those steps, he said.
The virus seems to be pretty vulnerable to vaccines and treatment, Farzan said. But he and Choe both describe it as as a quirky pathogen.
Because it doesn’t kill terribly often or quickly — like, say, Ebola — Choe said it has more chances to be transferred to others.
Plus, she said, the virus seems to have a longer incubation period than others. That means people may not know they’re carrying it and infecting others.
“This virus has a little bit of this and little bit of that,” Choe said. “That makes this virus spread so fast and wide.”
She said she thinks the chief failure has been the world’s inability to quickly test patients for the virus and take it seriously. South Korea seems to be the only nation that’s figured that out, Choe said.
“If we were prepared two months ago we could have prevented this pandemic,” she said. “But we didn’t.”
Farzan takes the long view. He thinks multiple U.S. administrations failed to maintain enough attention and funding to support research, development and manufacturing that could be of use in a pandemic.
The mid-2000s, shortly after scares from anthrax and SARS, seem like something of a high-water mark in hindsight, he said.
There’s plenty of good science happening now that could be developed into vaccines and treatments, Farzan said.
“But they’re not,” he said, “because we collectively since 2003, not blaming anybody, dropped the ball because we have a short attention span.”