Researchers Explain How Viruses Infect Human Cells, Uncover COVID-19 Contact Tracing Method 


Amid the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have started to explain how viruses infect human cells, and how natural products can be used against such lethal viruses.

This is coming as a new research says human mobility data gathered from de-identified mobile devices is helping to map COVID-19 transmission, and supporting contact tracing efforts.

The Australian research, published in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, analysed the Cedar Meats outbreak in Melbourne, the Crossroads Hotel outbreak in Western Sydney and community transmission in Victoria between June and July 2020.

The transmission patterns were then compared to near-real-time population mobility GPS data gathered from the Facebook Data for Good programme.

Lead author and infectious disease dynamics researcher, Dr. Cameron Zachreson, from the University of Melbourne says the study found that the de-identified GPS data could effectively be used to identify geographical areas with heightened COVID-19 transmission risk.

“Our goal was to provide useful information to help contact tracing efforts while at the same time ensuring that the privacy of individuals was never compromised”, Zachreson said.

Study co-author and disease computational modeling researcher, Nic Geard, an Associate Professor says containing COVID-19 outbreaks requires rapid response and a need to anticipate which populations and locations are at heightened risk of exposure.

“Current prediction models often rely on static, sometimes dated, depictions of people’s movement. Using realistic mobility information, as shown in the study, is likely to result in more effective containment policies”, Geard said.

The study was conducted in consultation with researchers from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity—a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

However, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California San Diego have broken down the genomic and life history traits of three classes of viruses that have caused endemic and global pandemics in the past and identify natural products—compounds produced in nature—with the potential to disrupt their spread.

In a review appearing in the Journal of Natural Products, marine chemists Mitchell Christy, Yoshinori Uekusa, and William Gerwick, and immunologist Lena Gerwick describe the basic biology of three families of RNA viruses and how they infect human cells.

These viruses use RNA instead of DNA to store their genetic information, a trait that helps them to evolve quickly. The team then describes the natural products that have been shown to have capabilities to inhibit them, highlighting possible treatment strategies.

“We wanted to evaluate the viruses that are responsible for these deadly outbreaks and identify their weaknesses”, said Christy, the first author.

“We consider their similarities and reveal potential strategies to target their replication and spread. We find that natural products are a valuable source of inhibitors that can be used as a basis for new drug development campaigns targeting these viruses.”

The research team is from Scripps Oceanography’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine (CMBB), which collects and analyses chemical compounds found in marine environments for potential efficacy as antibiotics, anticancer therapies, and other products with medical benefit.

A drug known as Marizomib entered the final stages of clinical trials as a potential treatment for brain cancers earlier in 2020. The drug came from a genus of marine bacteria that CMBB researchers had originally collected in seafloor sediments in 1990.

The researchers, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the UC San Diego Chancellor’s Office, present an overview of the structure of viruses in the families Coronaviridae, Flaviviridae, and Filoviridae.

Within these families are viruses that have led to COVID-19, dengue fever, West Nile encephalitis, Zika, Ebola, and Marburg disease outbreaks.

The team then identifies compounds produced by marine and terrestrial organisms that have some demonstrated level of activity against these viruses. Those compounds are thought to have molecular architectures that make them potential candidates to serve as viral inhibitors, preventing viruses from penetrating healthy human cells or from replicating.

The goal of the review, the researchers said, was to improve the process of drug development as new pandemics emerge, so that containing disease spread can accelerate in the face of new threats.

“It is simply common sense that we should put into place the infrastructure necessary to more rapidly develop treatments when future pandemics occur”, the review concludes. “One such recommendation is to create and maintain international compound libraries with substances that possess antiviral, antibacterial, or antiparasitic activity.”

To achieve that goal, the researchers realise that international agreements would need to be reached to address intellectual property issues, the rights and responsibilities of researchers, and other complex issues.

And while there has been remarkable progress in the development of vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 infection, effective antiviral drugs are also critically needed for managing COVID-19 infection in unvaccinated individuals or in cases where the efficacy of a vaccine decreases over time, the researchers said.

While several candidate antiviral molecules have been investigated for use in the clinic, such as remdesivir, lopinavir-ritonavir, hydroxychloroquine, and type I interferon therapy, all have shown limited or no efficacy in large scale trials. Effective antiviral drugs are still much in need of discovery and development.



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