How can we combat SARS-CoV-2? Virologist Johan Neyts is trying to find out, as he is doing, or has done before, for many other viruses such as zika. ‘As a society, we were not prepared for a pandemic,’ he says. ‘Fortunately here at the brand new Rega Institute, we were. We have world-class facilities to develop both virus inhibitors and a vaccine.’
One of those facilities is CAPS-IT, a unique and fully automatic high-biosecurity lab designed by researcher Pieter Leyssen. Robots perform tests around the clock on hundreds of thousands of substances to ascertain their potential effectiveness against the coronavirus. These substances are sent to Leuven from all over the world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among other organisations, is involved in this effort. ‘We have now tested more than one and a half million molecules against SARS-CoV-2,’ says Neyts. ‘That’s probably a world record (laughs).’
At the end of January, Professor Neyts' research team accelerated their efforts; all forty researchers shifted focus to corona, collaborations were set up with foreign countries, funding was sought, and more.
‘One of the first lines of research was the development of a relevant infection model in laboratory animals. We need this sort of animal model to be able to thoroughly test the efficacy of both virus inhibitors and a vaccine before setting up any clinical studies. Infecting mice with the new coronavirus didn’t work well, but hamsters turned out to be just what we were looking for, as the infection and disease progression is very similar to that seen in humans. We were one of the first research groups worldwide to use hamsters as laboratory animals.’
The research performed by Professor Neyts and his team focuses on both developing a vaccine and finding virus inhibitors against COVID-19. ‘The development of very specific and powerful virus inhibitors usually takes many years. That’s why we first check whether existing drugs or drug candidates contain substances that also happen to be effective in any way against corona. If that’s the case, you can quickly set up clinical studies.’
Nevertheless, the development of specific and potent inhibitors against SARS-CoV-2 is also necessary. Although we expect vaccines to get the virus under control, it will never go away completely. That’s why we also need good treatments to use against the virus. It’s also quite possible that sooner or later a new coronavirus will emerge that may be even more contagious and even more deadly.
‘Then we have to be prepared. In 2019, we knew of six coronaviruses that cause infection in humans, such as SARS and MERS, which caused outbreaks in 2003 and 2012 respectively, and four coronaviruses that cause mild symptoms. If a drug had been developed in recent years against all coronaviruses known at that time, they could probably have avoided the COVID-19 pandemic or kept it under much better control.’
It’s quite possible that sooner or later a new coronavirus will emerge that may be even more contagious and even more deadly.
Neyts hopes that governments will finally realize this fact: it is essential to develop medicines against a number of known virus families from which potentially dangerous viruses can develop.
Of course, you can only make a vaccine when a new virus appears on the scene. Major steps are also being taken on that front at the Rega Institute. ‘We have the advantage of having previously developed a vaccine against Zika and rabies by utilising a technology based on the yellow fever vaccine, which we can use as a master key,’ says Neyts.
‘That approach makes us unique in the world. We’ve started making eight variants of our candidate vaccine. We’ve tested them all in order to end up with the best. Our colleagues have worked very hard in recent months. That’s how we were able to develop a powerful vaccine candidate in a very short time.’
‘Scientifically speaking, this is a very interesting time. And if there weren't such an urgent need and such social pressure, I would still enjoy it. But now we simply cannot fail.’