HAMILTON — An infectious disease lab in western Montana is joining the worldwide effort to study a coronavirus that originated in China, has infected over 28,000 people and killed more than 560.
Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton received its first sample of the 2019 novel coronavirus on Wednesday, the Ravalli Republic reported.
Emmie de Wit, the lab’s principal investigator on the new virus, said researchers have already started projects and more will get underway soon.
About 10 scientists are working with the deadly flu-like virus, with tasks based on their area of expertise, de Wit said Thursday.
One of the first experiments will likely focus on how long the virus remains viable on a surface and still be able to infect someone.
With earlier coronavirus outbreaks — SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012 — scientists learned that many people became infected in hospitals where there was a potential for spread through droplets and aerosols produced by those already infected.
Other research will include learning how the virus binds to cells so therapies can be developed to prevent that binding and stop the infection, establishing an animal model to study the virus, and testing the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and treatments, she said.
Researchers will also test different antiviral drugs that have been shown to work on similar viruses.
“We are trying to find an antiviral that has already been used to treat other viruses,” de Wit said. “If we can find one that works, it’s easier to move forward quickly versus developing a totally different drug that would be specifically designed for this virus.”
Labs all over the world are studying the new virus. While the majority of people with the illness are in China, more than 200 people with the illness have been reported in other countries, including the U.S. Some Americans who had been living in Wuhan, China — where the virus originated — have been returned to the U.S. and were quarantined on military bases.
“Everyone is trying to make sure that we have a treatment or a vaccine in case it blows up in the U.S,” de Wit said.
Rocky Mountain Labs is affiliated with the National Institutes of Health.
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