Viral Outbreaks – How the Scientific Community Can Find Solutions

An analysis of COVID-19 research, and what this means for the future of your projects.

Viruses are not a new phenomena. For over a century, science has been helping humans stay ahead of viral research and develop vaccines to slow the spread of disease. So what causes such a huge public health crisis? What is the solution, and how do we as a scientific community, make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Widely considered the largest public-health emergency since the Spanish Influenza of 1918, COVID-19 has affected billions of lives around the world through infection, isolation from loved ones, and business closures designed to prevent the spread of the illness. Temporarily gone are the times where tens of thousands of people gather for sporting events, conferences, parades, and the like because of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.  In this article, we summarize recent advances in important virus research, explore where this fits in with your projects, and how our efforts today can help prevent an outbreak of this scale from occurring in the future.

What is a virus, and what sets COVID-19 apart?

Viruses are a subset of biological entities that generally contain a sequence of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, encapsulated by a protein shell (1). As they are not living organisms, they need a host-cell to multiply. A virus will infiltrate human cells and reprogram the cellular machinery to produce viral proteins resulting in the adverse effects of illness. 

The specific virus causing the current global crisis is SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, a novel strain of a family called coronaviruses that typically attack the respiratory system. COVID-19 is a strand of RNA that is surrounded by a nucleocapsid protein and further by a lipid bilayer known as the envelope. Within the envelope are CoV spike glycoproteins, which allow for the virus-host interaction to occur via the angiotensin-converting enzyme II (ACE2) receptor in humans, the same receptor that the SARS virus exploits (2).

How is COVID-19 transmitted?

The virus is transmitted through exposure to respiratory droplets or prolonged contact with an infected person (3). To avoid coming into contact with droplets from infected people, governments are enforcing ‘social distancing’ to control the spread of COVID-19, and reduce the impact on health care systems. Even with these measures, it is not possible to fully eradicate a virus until more is understood about its molecular makeup, and a vaccine is produced. Understanding the current deadly strain of the virus is important so that a vaccine is found quickly, and society can return to normal. Because of this time pressure, many researchers have quickly altered their research plans to help fight COVID-19. The pandemic status of COVID-19 is sparking a massive acceleration of viral research, in both the academic and private sectors.

How is the research community working to find a solution?

Current virus research on COVID-19 spans a variety of aims, including understanding the molecular characteristics of the virus, vaccine development, and developing new technologies to combat it. At Western University, a dedicated group of researchers are working hard to uncover the mechanisms of the CoV spike protein, by coupling the protein with a variety of different viruses in efforts to dissect and explore the viruses’ mechanisms of entry. In the search for a solution, many institutions are racing towards vaccine research at unprecedented speed. At the University of Pittsburgh, a candidate vaccine is being tested in mice, with clinical trials expected to begin in the summer of 2020. Meanwhile, at Moderna, a Boston-based Biotech firm, a new delivery method is being explored. The team at Moderna is looking to deliver their vaccine candidate through mRNA targeting COVID-19’s spike protein, with clinical trials starting imminently

As with all infectious diseases, the development of a vaccine remains a multi-phase process. Due to how quickly COVID-19 spread globally, many researchers are in the early discovery stage. This initial phase can include the identification of antigens, novel vector systems and DNA cloning protocols. Understanding how molecules are interacting through structural data, binding affinity and kinetics is imperative to understand the basic pathways that facilitate infection. As an example of how this information is helping with our understanding of the current pandemic, we know that the binding affinity of COVID-19 to these receptors is higher than with previous coronaviruses (2).

To obtain this data, surface plasmon resonance (SPR) has long been considered one of the gold-standard techniques for measuring the on rate, off rate and affinity of biomolecular interactions, including antigen-antibody and VLP interactions. By directly measuring the binding interaction in real-time without the use of labels, SPR provides reliable measurements to better understand disease pathways, lead generation, and candidate validation. One way we have used SPR to further understand COVID-19 is to characterize the binding between a SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibody to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein receptor-binding domain in our latest application note.

The challenges researchers are facing, and how to combat them

For many researchers to work on viruses such as COVID-19, they need access to instrumentation such as SPR. However, due to the pandemic-related closures, many researchers are finding it difficult to access the instrumentation they need. Many will also face a number of other hurdles. For example, although COVID-19 labs are exempt from closing in many institutions, they are not exempt from other efforts to social distance. As a result, personnel is limited in many labs, leading to workflow issues. The pressure to work remotely is especially exacerbated by the time constraint COVID-19 virus researchers face due to the exponential spread of the disease. 

Challenges such as these are what inspired Nicoya to create benchtop SPR instruments, which are accessible, user-friendly, and (as of recently) digital solutions that allow more people access to this important data. Currently, viral researchers are faced with needing instrumentation quickly, while working around the challenges of working remotely and distributors closing their offices. At Nicoya, we have robust and well established remote processes to provide demonstrations, support, installation, and training. This enables researchers to succeed in their work during this time.

How Nicoya is supporting researchers in the fight against COVID-19

To help keep your research moving forward at this time, we are also providing anyone with an SPR instrument, Nicoya or otherwise, technical SPR Support for experimental optimization or data analysis at no cost. This will allow researchers to come together to combat the current challenges, and get access to the instrumentation and data they need. Our goal is to help unite the scientific community and prioritize improving human life.

As the scientific community rushes to find solutions to the current global pandemic, we also look to the future, to find tools to prevent outbreaks of this scale from happening again. Having access to crucial instrumentation that allows every researcher to study viruses and other disease agents from their lab is essential. This access means that important research is expedited, allowing vaccines to be developed in the early stages of an outbreak, before the disease spreads to global proportions. Instrumentation companies must also find ways to work with researchers remotely so that support can be provided even if they cannot be physically present. This support will allow researchers to succeed, and thus protect our global community from pandemics of this proportion in the future.

Learn about how we can help accelerate your research with benchtop SPR.

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  1. Lodish, H., & Berk, A. (2000). Section 6.3 Viruses: Structure, Function and Uses. In Molecular Cell Biology (4th Edition ed.). New York, NY: W H Freeman &.
  2. Wrapp, D., Wang, N., Corbett, K. S., Goldsmith, J. A., Hsieh, C., Abiona, O., . . . Mclellan, J. S. (2020). Cryo-EM structure of the 2019-nCoV spike in the prefusion conformation. Science, 367(6483), 1260-1263. doi:10.1126/science.abb2507
  3. WHO. (2020). Modes of transmission of virus causing COVID-19: Implications for IPC precaution recommendations. Retrieved April, 2020, from