Another pandemic in 2028? Scientists discover ‘pocket’ that may stop future coronaviruses

CHICAGO, Ill. — The coronavirus pandemic is still here, but scientists are already preparing for the next one, if a disturbing trend continues. Researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine say a seven-year pattern is emerging, dating back to 2004, which could signal that another coronavirus outbreak may arrive in 2028.

Luckily, along with those unnerving findings, study authors have discovered a new target in the fight against COVID-19 and future coronaviruses too. The study reveals a key “pocket” in a specific protein which helps these viruses to function and infect people. Researchers add developing drugs which fit in this pocket can keep future coronavirus strains from turning deadly.

“There is great need for new approaches to drug discovery to combat the SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic and infections from future coronaviruses,” says Feinberg professor of microbiology-immunology Karla Satchell in a media release.

“The idea is this future drug would work early in the infection,” Satchell explains. “If somebody around you gets the coronavirus, you would run to the drugstore to get your medication and take it for three or four days. If you were sick, you wouldn’t get as sick.”

All coronaviruses share this particular protein scientists are targeting

An international team mapped out three new proteins using 3D technology to find out which structures are important to these pathogens. They discovered a secret identifier in the inner workings of the virus which enables it to hide from the human immune system.

The coronavirus-specific pocket sits in the protein nsp16, which is present in all strains of coronavirus, not just COVID-19. This pocket binds the virus gene fragment, which is held in place by a metal ion. Coronaviruses use this fragment as a template for all of its viral building blocks.

Satchell says scientists have a chance to create drugs which fit into this pocket and block the nsp16 protein from functioning. Moreover, doing this would not block the function of normal proteins in the human body which don’t have this pocket.

Study authors consider nsp16 to be one of the key viral proteins they can target with medication right after someone is exposed to the virus. Their goal now is to develop a defense that will stop future virus infections before they develop into serious illnesses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, patients typically don’t display any serious symptoms for the first few days after exposure to the virus.

Additionally, drugs which target this coronavirus pocket will work against all kinds of strains, including ones which only cause the common cold. Researchers say doctors will most likely give them as part of a “treatment cocktail” that includes drugs similar to Remdesivir. This current COVID-19 medication also prevents the virus from forming the building blocks it needs to replicate itself.

“God forbid we need this, but we will be ready,” Satchell concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Science Signaling.

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