Coronavirus and COVID-19

Coronavirus and COVID-19

Visualisation of SARS-CoV-2 virus
Coronaviruses are a type of virus that typically infects the respiratory tract of humans. This class of viruses includes a range of species that vary in the severity of disease that they cause. Some coronavirus species cause relatively mild upper respiratory tract diseases such as the common cold. Other coronaviruses cause more serious lung diseases such as pneumonia.

Coronavirus diseases such as COVID-19, SARS and MERS have included recent epidemics that have caused serious illness and death of many people around the world, and disrupted many communities.

Our researchers are working towards better approaches to diagnose, treat and prevent the spread of coronaviruses, both to address the current COVID-19 global outbreak as well as in preparedness for likely future coronaviral disease outbreaks.

Our coronavirus research

Our scientists are leveraging WEHI’s longstanding expertise in infectious diseases research and drug discovery, to focus on developing much-needed treatments and rapid diagnostic tools for COVID-19 and future potential coronavirus outbreaks.

We aim to accelerate the diagnosis of people infected with coronaviruses and improve their clinical care. We also hope our research will lead to strategies that prevent the spread of the virus from infected people to others in the community.

Research projects addressing COVID-19 include

  • COVID PROFILE - A study of immunity to COVID-19
    People who have recovered from COVID-19, and their close contacts, could hold the key to understanding how immunity to the disease develops, how long it lasts and what happens when immunity is lost. Understanding immunity to COVID-19 is vital for developing vaccination strategies. It will also help us better manage this virus in the community and allow us to adjust to a COVID normal way of operating. The COVID PROFILE study is looking for 300 adult volunteers, both those who have had COVID-19 and those who were close contacts but did not contract the disease. These participants will be followed for 12 months after their exposure to COVID-19. More information
  • COVID SHIELD – clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine to prevent COVID-19 in high risk health care workers
    In collaboration with major hospitals across several states the COVID SHIELD trial invites the participation of doctors, nurses and other health workers who are at risk of acquiring infection from the virus that causes COVID-19. Evidence is emerging that the drug hydroxychloroquine, used for more than 70 years to treat autoimmune conditions such as lupus, may have antiviral activity that could prevent COVID-19 in patients, but we need to test this more. Half of the trial participants would be provided with hydroxychloroquine for four months to prevent COVID-19, the other half will be provided with a placebo. More information 
  • Developing a new rapid diagnostic tool for coronavirus, c-FIND
    This test is being developed to detect infections in people within minutes – much faster than existing tests – and to detect viral infections even if a person shows no symptoms. c-FIND would be suitable for rapid screening of people at hospitals, general practice clinics or airports, allowing infected people to be identified, isolated and managed to prevent disease spread. c-FIND could also increase the ability to perform higher volumes of tests than currently possible. The development of c-FIND has been boosted by support from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund Frontier Health and Medical Research Initiative. More information
  • Discovering new medicines against coronaviruses using the National Drug Discovery Centre 
    The National Drug Discovery Centre (NDCC) is a collaborative facility funded by the Victorian and Australian Government, philanthropy and WEHI’s own investment. The NDDC enables our researchers to accelerate the discovery and development of new medicines. We will use the high-throughput screening facility and expertise at the NDDC to accelerate the development of new medicines for COVID-19 and other coronaviruses. The NDDC is currently seeking applications for COVID-19 related screens.
  • Antivirals targeting the machines of coronaviruses
    Upon coronavirus infection, the virus produces its own machinery in our cells to survive and thrive. Stopping these viral machines with a drug would kill the virus and curb infection. Our researchers are engaged in drug discovery campaigns to discover new drug-like compounds to inhibit viral machines directly. Focussing on two coronavirus proteins named PLpro and Mpro, they have screened hundreds-of-thousands of compounds since 2020 to identify new drugs for COVID-19. Such medicines would treat but also prevent COVID-19, and would be complementary to vaccines. Drugs against PLpro and Mpro exploit a distinct vulnerability of the virus, and would work for viral variants escaping from vaccine protection. PLpro and Mpro are present in all coronaviruses, and drugs would likely be useful for potential future coronavirus pandemics.
  • Assessing potential antiviral medicines for activity against coronavirus
    Using our established infectious diseases research facilities, we are testing vast libraries of potential medicines for their actions against COVID-19. These libraries could also hold the key to treating future coronavirus outbreaks.
  • Developing 'biologics' medicines for coronavirus infections
    'Biologics’ medicines mimic naturally occurring proteins such as antibodies – proteins produced by immune cells to fight infection. They are already in clinical use for diseases such as cancer and autoimmune conditions. We are harnessing our infectious disease research capabilities and collaborating with other organisations to identify antibodies that can block coronavirus infection. This research involves using extremely small antibodies that occur naturally in alpacas – called nanobodies – to develop biologics that could prevent the COVID-19 coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, from binding to human cells – the first step in the virus infection cycle. Determining which nanobodies are the most potent in blocking the virus will allow us to develop antibody-based therapies that will be particularly useful for older people or those who are immunocompromised. More information
  • Identifying risk factors for developing severe COVID19
    It is not yet clear why some people develop serious complications from COVID-19 infections, while others have mild or no symptoms. WEHI’s computational biology researchers are tackling this question in two separate studies.
    A collaboration with scientists at QUT, the University of Queensland and Hospital Marcelino Champagnat in Curitiba, Brazil, seeks to discover 'genetic signatures' of people who develop severe COVID-19, with a focus on severe lung inflammation. This research has already revealed that the activity (expression level) of a gene involved in inflammatory signalling can predict which COVID-19 patients will develop severe disease. 
    A separate study, in collaboration with the Doherty Institute, the Melbourne School of Engineering and international genomics company Illumina, has developed the ID Predict platform to understand the many factors that contribute to the severity of COVID-19. This incorporates information about a person’s immune system, genome, microbiome and metabolism, as well as viral factors.   
    These projects have the potential to identify people who are at highest risk from COVID-19, and have the greatest need of healthcare interventions to prevent and treat this disease. A better understanding of why severe COVID-19 develops may also potentially leading to new therapeutic targets.
  • Understanding why long COVID develops
    ‘Long COVID’ is a syndrome that persists for weeks or months after an initial COVID-19 infection. Its symptoms include fatigue, pain, and respiratory and heart problems. It is thought 20-30 per cent of people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus develop long COVID-19, with women at higher risk than men. WEHI scientists are collaborating with the Institute of Translational Medical Research in Argentina to discover immunological and molecular signatures in people diagnosed with COVID-19 that predict who will develop long COVID. This research may lead to a better understanding of the causes of long COVID, and may potentially even lead to better therapies for this poorly understood syndrome.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a class of viruses sharing similar genetic (RNA) and structural features. These viruses can infect cells lining the inside of the nose, airways and lungs of humans, other mammals and birds.

There are many different types of coronavirus that vary in which species they can infect (some do not infect humans), and in the severity of disease they cause.

In humans, some coronaviruses can cause a very mild infection: coronaviruses cause around a quarter of cases of the common cold, involving inflammation and discharge from the upper respiratory tract.

Coronaviruses can also cause more serious lung infections, leading to pneumonia and susceptibility to other lung pathogens. This can cause serious illness and death.

People typically develop immunity to a specific type of coronavirus after an infection, but this only protects against that type of coronaviruses. In the past 20 years three serious coronavirus disease outbreaks – SARS, MERS and COVID-19 – have begun through the transmission of a new form of coronavirus from other mammals to humans. Because people had not been exposed to these coronavirus types in the past, they were not immune to this disease. In the case of SARS and COVID-19, the virus then rapidly spread between people.

At this stage it is thought that COVID-19 is a mild illness in the majority of cases with most infected people having a cough and fever that lasts for around two weeks. The disease appears to be more serious in elderly people who have other health conditions such as cardiovascular disease or type two diabetes.

There is still much to learn about COVID-19, and our researchers are contributing to the global research effort to combat this emerging viral disease, and potential future coronavirus outbreaks.

How are coronaviruses diagnosed?

The majority of infections with coronaviruses are mild, causing the common cold, and are not formally diagnosed.

If someone is suspected of carrying the virus causing COVID-19 (or another serious coronavirus), the current form of diagnosis relies upon detecting viral genetic material (RNA) in samples taken from the person’s respiratory tract such as mucus. Viral RNA can be detected in a laboratory in hours, using a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). People may be suspected of carrying the COVID-19 virus either because they are showing symptoms, signs or clinical evidence (such as a chest x-ray) of a serious lung infection or pneumonia, because they have an unexplained fever and cough, or because they have had potential contact with another known virus carrier.

Our researchers are working to develop faster tests for infectious diseases including COVID-19, so that people can be diagnosed on-the-spot within minutes not hours – even in people with no symptoms. This would enable faster clinical management and isolation of infected people and prevent the infection from spreading.

How are coronaviruses treated?

People with mild coronavirus infections, causing cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose and fever, may choose to take medications that relieve the symptoms – such as pain/fever relievers and anti-congestant medicines – as well as rest until the symptoms resolve. 

People with serious coronavirus diseases such as COVID-19 may require hospitalisation, breathing support and protection from other infectious agents such as bacteria that may worsen the disease.

Our researchers are taking a number of different approaches to discover and develop new, specific medicines to treat people with COVID-19.

How to prevent coronaviruses

The national roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines in Australia began in February 2021. Vaccination is the most effective way to protect yourself against getting COVID-19, and also reduce the severity of the disease if you do contract it.

Up-to-date advice is available from the Australian Department of Health

People can reduce the spread of any coronavirus disease by practising good hygiene – such as hand washing, avoiding touching their face with unclean hands, preventing the spread of virus-containing droplets when we sneeze or cough, and avoiding contact with people who may have a coronavirus disease. Wearing a face mask can also help stop droplets from spreading. 

What support is available?

Information about COVID-19 is rapidly being updated. Your local health department can provide information most relevant to your situation. Please note that WEHI cannot specific medical advice to individuals.

Sources of accurate information include:


Donate to COVID-19 research


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