New study suggests better approach in search for COVID-19 drugs

February 11, 2021

Research from the University of Kent, Goethe-University in Frankfurt am Main, and the Philipps-University in Marburg has provided crucial insights into the biological composition of SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, revealing vital clues for the discovery of antiviral drugs.

Researchers compared SARS-CoV-2 and the closely related virus SARS-CoV, the cause of the 2002/03 SARS outbreak. Despite being 80% biologically identical, the viruses differ in crucial properties. SARS-CoV-2 is more contagious and less deadly, with a fatality rate of 2% compared to SARS-CoV's 10%. Moreover, SARS-CoV-2 can be spread by asymptomatic individuals, whereas SARS-CoV was only transmitted by those who were already ill.

Most functions in cells are carried out by proteins; large molecules made up of amino acids. The amino acid sequence determines the function of a protein. Viruses encode proteins that reprogramme infected cells to produce more viruses. Despite the proteins of SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV having largely the same amino acid sequences, the study identifies a small subset of amino acid sequence positions that differ between them and are responsible for the observed changes in the behaviour of both viruses.

Crucially, these dissimilarities between SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV also result in different sensitivities to drugs for the treatment of COVID-19. This is vitally important, as many attempts to identify COVID-19 drugs are based on drug response data from other coronaviruses like SARS-CoV. However, the study findings show that the effectiveness of drugs against SARS-CoV or other coronaviruses does not indicate their effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2.

Martin Michaelis, Professor of Molecular Medicine at Kent's School of Biosciences, said: 'We have now a much better idea how the small differences between SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 can have such a massive impact on the behaviour of these viruses and the diseases that they cause. Our data also show that we must be more careful with the experimental systems that are used for the discovery of drugs for COVID-19. Only research using SARS-CoV-2 produces reliable results.'

Professor Jindrich Cinatl, Goethe-University, said: 'Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, I have been amazed that two so similar viruses can behave so differently. Now we start to understand this. This also includes a better idea of what we have to do to get better at finding drugs for COVID-19.'
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The study 'Differentially conserved amino acid positions may reflect differences in SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV behaviour' has been published in the journal Bioinformatics.
(Jake McGreig, Katie-May McLaughlin, Stuart Masterson, Mark Wass, Martin Michaelis - University of Kent; Denisa Bojkova, Marek Widera, Sandra Ciesek, Jindrich Cinatl - Goethe-University Frankfurt; Verena Krähling, Philipps-University Marburg).
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/bioinformatics/btab094

ENDS

For further information or interview requests, please contact Sam Wood at the University of Kent Press Office.
Tel: 07713087981
Email: s.wood-700@kent.ac.uk

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Notes to Editors

The University of Kent is a leading UK university producing world-class research, rated internationally excellent and leading the way in many fields of study. Our 20,000 students are based at campuses and centres in Canterbury, Medway, Brussels and Paris.

With 97% of our research judged to be of international quality in the most recent Research Assessment Framework (REF2014), our students study with some of the most influential thinkers in the world. Universities UK recently named research from the University as one of the UK's 100 Best Breakthroughs of the last century for its significant impact on people's everyday lives.

We are renowned for our inspirational teaching. Awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government's Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), we were presented with the Outstanding Support for Students award at the 2018 Times Higher Education (THE) Awards for the second year running.

Our graduates are equipped for a successful future allowing them to compete effectively in the global job market. More than 95% of graduates find a job or study opportunity within six months.

The University is a truly international community with over 40% of our academics coming from outside the UK and our students representing over 150 nationalities.

We are a major economic force in south east England, supporting innovation and enterprise. We are worth £0.9 billion to the economy of the south east and support more than 9,400 jobs in the region.

In March 2018, the Government and Health Education England (HEE) announced that the joint bid by the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University for funded places to establish a medical school has been successful. The first intake of undergraduates to the Kent and Medway Medical School will be in September 2020.

We are proud to be part of Canterbury, Medway and the county of Kent and, through collaboration with partners, work to ensure our global ambitions have a positive impact on the region's academic, cultural, social and economic landscape.

University of Kent

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