University of Idaho researchers work to find cure for COVID-19

MOSCOW, Idaho — Researchers at the University of Idaho have started working to find a cure for COVID-19.

During a meeting with faculty members about three to four weeks ago, they started to discuss what they could do to help the pandemic. The novel coronavirus has infected hundreds of thousands and killed more than 39,000 in the United States.

“We were thinking about how we might address the corona crisis, utilizing all the unique skills that we have,” said Dr. Paul Rowley, virologist and assistant professor at the University of Idaho.

The approach they’ll be taking is similar to their work as they searched for a vaccine for Ebola and a therapeutic drug for HIV.

“It might be a reasonable thing to try if we then instead of targeting the virus itself, we target the human cells using a therapeutic,” Rowley said.

Everyone got to work, including Jagdish Patel, a molecular modeling specialist and assistant professor at the university.

“The real goal is to basically come up with a shield or a drug that can basically act as a shield for the human receptors,” Patel said.

Patel said the spikes on the virus attach to the human cell receptors, infecting someone with the virus. Patel said the shield would protect the receptor so the spike couldn’t attach to it.

“So it would not only act a prophylactic, which you would take before the infection, but also during the infection as well,” he explained.

They’re using knowledge from the past in order to screen thousands of shield to see what doesn’t work and what does. Patel compared it to a key and lock, but you have a million keys. It’s just a matter of finding the right one — or in their case a cure.

Patel, Rowley and a big team taking on this challenge are also trying to see if this can help other viruses.

“So for any future coronavirus uses this receptor — we could certainly apply a therapeutic that targets the receptor and blocks all virus of this type,” Rowley said.

The testing is going to take time, the duo said.

“But we are hoping within a year that we would have identified potential leads that we think can proceed to for the rigorous testing,” Patel said.

Rowley said they’re simply going to test the shields on cells in a dish and see if they can protect them from COVID-19. It will not be tested on humans right now.

“It’s challenging, but it’s ultimately very rewarding because this is, this is a serious disease with serious consequences for a lot of people,” Rowley said. “I’m very grateful to a lot of people here in Idaho to have given me the chance to work here in Idaho and also to be apart of hopefully the cure.”

For the future — they said this can be a pipeline for antiviral drug development during potential future outbreaks and respond quicker to it.