Existing SARS research provides a useful template for further investigation of this latest coronavirus, adds Drosten. Scientists will use animal models such as mice, ferrets and macaques to study the pathogen’s virulence and how it spreads, for example. They will also test whether antivirals and vaccines developed since SARS to treat other coronaviruses are effective.
A key experiment, he says, will be to find where the new virus latches on to the human lung. Some scientists suspect that it might bind to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor, as did the SARS virus. That could be both good and bad news. The receptor is found deep in the lungs, where infections can cause severe disease, but viruses nestling there are less apt to be coughed or sneezed into the air than are those found higher in the lungs.
“Receptor-binding properties could also be crucial to the success of potential control measures, should they be needed,” says Drosten. SARS was contained by isolating suspected cases, partly because it did not spread quickly, but also because those it infected became very ill before the virus moved into the upper respiratory system. That made cases easy to identify before the patients started spreading the virus. Flu pandemics, by contrast, are impossible to stop, largely because those infected with the virus spread it to others for days before they show any symptoms of infection.