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Researchers Eye Potential 'Broad-Spectrum' Antiviral Discovery for Covid-19

Peptide could one day lead to medicine to fend off several existing and emerging viruses.
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As scientists around the globe race to create a Covid-19 vaccine, one team of researchers said this week that it's made an important, early step toward an antiviral that could potentially fend off not only the novel coronavirus, but a host of other dangerous viruses as well.

Dubbed a "broad-spectrum antiviral strategy" for Covid-19 and other viral infections, the finding by a team of microbiologists at the University of Hong Kong could eventually lead to a medicine that could stop a half-dozen known respiratory viruses as well as new threats the world has yet to encounter.

The discovery centers on a broad-spectrum antiviral peptide known as P9R that the researchers hope will lead to a possible defense against the novel coronavirus -- officially called SARS-CoV-2 -- as well as the viruses that cause MERS, SARS and the H1N1 flu. So far, the research has been limited to mice in the lab, but if effective, it could change the "one bug, one drug," approach to viral outbreaks, say the scientists.

"So far there is no good broad-spectrum antiviral -- like no good antiviral for Covid-19. Thus, the advantage of this peptide is very broad-spectrum. We will continue to study it for drug development," one of the researchers, Hanjun Zhao, a research assistant professor in the department of microbiology at HKU told TheStreet by email late last week.

Zhao's team's work was published in the Journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.

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"If the observations can be independently verified, the compound could warrant significant attention," said another scientist, Prof. Richard H. Ebright, the laboratory director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, in an email to TheStreet. Ebright is not affiliated with the HKU researchers, but was asked by TheStreet to comment on the work. 

"The broad-spectrum in vitro antiviral activity, the mouse in vivo antiviral efficacy, and the low resistance emergence of the compound are highly noteworthy observations," said Ebright, but cautioned that it "will be important to define better the mode of action, and, especially, the basis for the broad-spectrum antiviral activity."

The peptide could potentially fight off infections by binding to the viruses -- which require a certain level of acidity -- and prevent them from reproducing inside human cells by, in effect, neutralizing them, suggested Zhao.

"A lot of viruses need acidification in cells for viral RNA release and replication. This basic peptide can prevent the virus-host endosomal acidification," Zhao told TheStreet.​

Viruses need a host cell in which to replicate, and they typically use endosomes for that process. 

"We will continue to develop this peptide and try to put it in clinical trials. Currently," said Zhao. "We do not how long time to achieve this aim."