In a new study, researchers have discovered what may be the Achilles’ heel of the coronavirus, a finding that may help close the door on COVID-19 and possibly head off future pandemics.
The research was conducted by a team at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and elsewhere.
The coronavirus is an RNA virus that has a ‘proofreading’ enzyme can correct errors in the RNA sequence that occur during replication, when copies of the virus are generated.
In the study, the team found that this ‘proofreading’ enzyme also regulates the rate of recombination, the ability of the coronavirus to shuffle parts of its genome and even pull in genetic material from other viral strains while it replicates in order to gain evolutionary advantage.
These patterns of recombination are conserved across multiple coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, and MERS-CoV, which causes a similar illness, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome.
The team says if they can find a drug that prevents RNA recombination, they can really shut down the virus.
Previous studies have shown that coronaviruses are resistant to many antiviral drugs, which work by introducing errors in the viral genetic code to block replication.
The coronavirus proofreader corrects the errors so replication can proceed.
Only a few drugs are capable of circumventing the proofreader.
They include an approved drug, remdesivir, and EIDD-2801 (molnupiravir), an investigational drug now in clinical trials. Both were developed with the help of the research team.
One author of the study is Andrew Routh, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
The study is published in PLOS Pathogens.
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