Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. However, three new coronaviruses have emerged from animal reservoirs over the past two decades to cause serious and widespread illness and death.
There are hundreds of coronaviruses, most of which circulate among such animals as pigs, camels, bats, and cats. Sometimes those viruses jump to humans—called a spillover event—and can cause disease. Four of the seven known coronaviruses that sicken people cause only mild to moderate disease. Three can cause more serious, even fatal, disease. SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) emerged in November 2002 and caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). That virus disappeared by 2004. Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is caused by the MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Transmitted from an animal reservoir in camels, MERS was identified in September 2012 and continues to cause sporadic and localized outbreaks. The third novel coronavirus to emerge in this century is called SARS-CoV-2. It causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which emerged from China in December 2019 and was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020.
Building on previous research on SARS and MERS, NIAID scientists and grantees are well positioned to rapidly develop COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. These projects include conducting basic research to understand how the virus infects cells and causes disease, and what interventions can prevent and stop the spread of disease.
In fact, within two weeks of the discovery of COVID-19, NIAID researchers had determined how the virus enters cells. And within two months sites had begun Phase 1 trials of a treatment (remdesivir) and a vaccine (mRNA-1273).
Why Are Coronaviruses a Priority for NIAID?
After SARS-CoV emerged from China in November 2002 it spread to 26 countries within a few months, largely by infected passengers who traveled. More than 8,000 people fell ill and 774 died. SARS drew the collective focus of researchers throughout the world. The disease disappeared in 2004, likely due to intensive contact tracing and case isolation measures. In September 2012, a new coronavirus was identified in the Middle East causing an illness similar to SARS. Again, researchers at NIAID and across the globe initiated studies to understand MERS-CoV and how to stop it. Research efforts from those two outbreaks—including development of a DNA vaccine candidate for SARS by NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center—have prepared scientists to quickly assess the severity and transmission potential of SARS-CoV-2, and to develop countermeasures.
How Is NIAID Addressing This Critical Topic?
When MERS emerged in 2012 and COVID-19 was identified in 2020, NIAID intramural and extramural scientists mobilized quickly to study the viruses, efforts which continue today. Key areas of investigation include basic research on their origins, how they cause disease, and developing animal study models, new treatments, and vaccines.