The viruses that cause common colds are known as coronaviruses, but when Tulane University School of Medicine virologist Robert Garry first saw COVID-19 at the beginning of this year, he worried this coronavirus could be the one scientists had long feared would lead to a pandemic. Previous viruses such as the first SARS outbreak sickened people to the point they had to stay home or were hospitalized, limiting much of the person-to-person transmission. This novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, had the ability to rapidly spread before people showed any signs of infection.
“There were some nights I lost sleep over this because this virus has similar features in its genome as other viruses that have gone on to cause pandemics,” said Garry. “There’s something in the spike protein furin cleavage site that makes the virus able to spread through the body and cause a lot of damage.”
Now nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Garry has been sharing what he’s learned about the virus with news organizations around the world. PBS NewsHour featured the Tulane researcher, connecting for an interview remotely using Zoom. Garry Skyped with CBS and FaceTimed with ABC. Garry, with years of expertise researching earlier outbreaks of viruses such as Ebola and Lassa Fever, is contributing a wealth of knowledge to this new threat.
Garry’s lab in the School of Medicine is working on a number of emerging viruses including COVID-19. His research team hopes to develop next-generation diagnostics, which would provide quicker and more accurate results. They’re also learning more about how the virus spreads and where it originated. At the same time, the team is continuing work on other potential threats like Zika, which could reemerge at any time.
“The lesson from COVID-19 is that we need to be better prepared for future pandemics,” said Garry. “We need infrastructure already in place to rapidly develop effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to a newly emerging pathogen.”