Due to advancements in genetic technology, fighting the coronavirus now is much easier, faster and cheaper than it would be a few years ago.
Only two weeks after the virus was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO), scientists were able to isolate the virus and understand its’ entire sequence of genetic material – its genome – reports Nicole Wetsman of The Verge.
As soon as the genome was discovered, mapped and made public, biotech companies began creating synthetic copies of the virus to be used in research, assumedly in attempts to find a vaccine.
Wetsman notes that this all happened much faster than it ever has before. During the 2002 outbreak of SARS, a virus very similar to the current strain of Wuhan coronavirus, it took many months before the virus’ genome was sequenced and longer still before it was synthetically remade in a lab. “Speed is important because the outbreak is unlike anything public health experts have seen before”, she writes.
Many experts are fearing that the coronavirus may stick around: become endemic.
Diseases that are listed as endemic are done so for different reasons. For epidemiologists, a disease may become endemic when it is “continuously, predictably present in the human population” like the flu. For politicians, a disease may become endemic when “it’s well-understood enough that it stops being an unknown threat for the government”.
However, for most people, the differences between endemic and epidemic are the fear of not knowing what the virus will actually do to them. Graham Medley, director of the Centre for the Mathematic Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine notes “people fear contracting this novel coronavirus because they don’t know what it’s going to do” and that “The definition is really based on how the risks are perceived”.
Fears that the coronavirus can’t be stopped won’t stop scientists, though. Especially now that genetic synthesis, the creation of a genetic copy, is exponentially cheaper than it was two decades ago. It used to cost $10 to create a synthetic copy of a single nucleotide, a building block of the virus’ RNA. Now, the cost is under 10 cents.
With the new coronavirus gene being around 30,000 nucleotides in length, the reduction in synthesis cost makes all the difference in how many copies scientists can make, and how much faster the virus can be studied.
Experts have since been able to quickly develop diagnostic tests for the virus using the synthetic copies created from the genetic sequences. This has allowed the sending of testing kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (The CDC) to international labs in under a month since the virus was initially reported. It has also allowed the CDC to begin testing for vaccines.
The Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says that one vaccine candidate is already set to enter clinical trials within the next 3 months.