Coronavirus

Coronavirus

Blue and brown image showing viral particles
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 the Institute’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

  • Proposed clinical trial of lupus drug, hydroxychloroquine, to prevent COVID-19 in high risk health care workers
    In collaboration with major hospitals across several states the proposed trial plans to invite the participation of doctors, nurses and other health workers across hospital departments 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. Trial participants would be provided with hydroxychloroquine for four months to prevent COVID-19. The proposed trial would involve 2250 people, half of whom will be on the drug, and half on placebo. Further details to come.  
  • 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 may be suitable for rapid screening of people at hospitals, general practice clinics or airports, allowing infected people to be isolated and treated, and to prevent disease spread. The development of c-FIND has been boosted by funding from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund Frontier Health and Medical Research Initiative.
  • 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 the Institute’s own investment. The NDDC enables our researchers to accelerate the discovery and development of new medicines.
  • Assessing potential antiviral medicines for activity against coronavirus
    This uses the Institute’s established biosecure 'level 3 physical containment’ infectious diseases research facilities.
  • Developing antibody-based therapies for coronavirus infections
    This involves selection of immune proteins called antibodies that bind and block coronavirus infection. These would have applications for treating people with coronavirus infections, as well as understanding key components of coronavirus biology.

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. In the case of COVID-19, people are required to isolate (quarantine) themselves for 14 days from diagnosis even if their symptoms are mild, to prevent spread in the community.

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.

The most effective therapies for people with COVID-19 are still being determined. Currently there are no specific anti-viral medications available.

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

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 (including those in quarantine). In the case of COVID-19, it appears that the virus can survive for several hours outside the body – meaning it can be transmitted by touching an infected surface and then touching your face.

There is currently no vaccine or other therapy that protects people against COVID-19.

Please visit your local health department’s website for the latest information specific to your area about preventing the spread COVID-19. In Australia, please seek up-to-date advice from the Australian Department of Health.

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 the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute cannot specific medical advice to individuals.

Sources of accurate information include:

 

Header image from the US Centre for Disease Control on Unsplash

Researchers: 

Professor Marc Pellegrini

Professor Marc Pellegrini in the lab
Professor
Marc
Pellegrini
Joint Division Head
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Scientist in the National Drug Discovery Centre

The NDDC enables medical researchers to access ultra-high throughput screening, fast tracking scientific discoveries into new medicines.