Scientists Tell Congress Coronavirus Lessons Must Be Remembered for Future Epidemics

September 14, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Mary Maxon, Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences. 01/30/2020 Berkeley, California

WASHINGTON — Scientists updated a congressional committee Friday on how the U.S. Energy Department is helping to develop a cure and vaccine for COVID-19.

They said Energy Department supercomputers are unlocking mysteries about the structure of the virus as they look for ways to deactivate it.

The House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on energy held the hearing as the U.S. death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic approaches 200,000.

“It’s likely that this is not the only pandemic that we’ll see,” said Mary Maxon, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory bioscientist.

She and other witnesses told lawmakers that investments they make now to fight the coronavirus pandemic are likely to benefit the nation far into the future as other diseases threaten the population.

Coronavirus is creating unique challenges for medical researchers because of its unusual characteristics, Maxon said.

“It goes through a process of producing a replication center” inside bodies of infected persons, she said. The virus will not die until the replication center stops duplicating disease cells.

“There are cells that can fuse together to have two nuclei in the cell,” Maxon said. “They’re not sure what it means yet.”

Glenn Randall, a University of Chicago microbiologist, warned against a pattern he’s seen of lawmakers seeking cures to diseases only during an outbreak but then forgetting about the health dangers when the emergency subsides.

A better option is “a multi-pronged attack” to address many disease threats, he said.

He mentioned the example of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that erupted in China in 2002. It spread worldwide within months but was contained with medicines, mostly antipyretics.

Although COVID-19 is a virus strain similar to SARS, it is unresponsive to the same medicines.

Nevertheless, lessons learned from previous research on SARS is speeding the development of medicines and vaccines for coronavirus, Randall said. He recommended continuing research that could be used to combat future epidemics.

“This is going to go way beyond COVID to any disease,” Randall said.

The scientists won support in their plea for ongoing research from Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, who chairs the energy subcommittee.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold in the U.S., it became apparent that [the Energy Department’s] laboratories and programs were also well positioned to help us respond to the virus,” Fletcher said.

She mentioned other biotechnology developed by the Energy Department laboratories as an example for what she would like to see coming from the COVID-19 research.

“Leveraging these capabilities has enabled researchers to develop countermeasures against the novel coronavirus like diagnostic tests and allowed them to assess transmission and evolution dynamics as the virus spreads globally,” Fletcher said in a statement.

In a rare show of bipartisan agreement, Republicans on the subcommittee, such as Rep. Jim Baird of Indiana, largely agreed that the U.S. government needs greater precautions against epidemics.

“I think this basic research is really critical,” Baird said.

The most recent development in the ongoing research is a discovery that coronavirus can damage heart muscle tissue. Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., published a study that recommends heart medicines to neutralize the disease.

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