Study’s findings may help eventually close door on COVID-19

by Bill Snyder

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston have discovered what may be the Achilles’ heel of the coronavirus, a finding that may help close the door on COVID-19 and possibly head off future pandemics.

The coronavirus is an RNA virus that has, in its enzymatic toolkit, a “proofreading” exoribonuclease, called nsp14-ExoN, which can correct errors in the RNA sequence that occur during replication, when copies of the virus are generated.

Using cutting-edge technologies and novel bioinformatics approaches, the researchers discovered that this ExoN also regulates the rate of recombination, the ability of the coronavirus to shuffle parts of its genome and even pull in genetic material from other viral strains while it replicates in order to gain evolutionary advantage.These patterns of recombination, the researchers reported last week in the journal PLOS Pathogens, are conserved across multiple coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, and MERS-CoV, which causes a similar illness, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome.

“The coronavirus exoribonuclease is therefore a conserved, important target for inhibition and attenuation in the ongoing pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, and in preventing future outbreaks of novel coronaviruses,” concluded the paper’s first author, Jennifer Gribble, a VUMC graduate student in the laboratory of Mark Denison, MD.

“If you can find a drug that prevents RNA recombination, you really shut down the virus,” added Andrew Routh

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