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How to make drugs for viruses that don’t exist yet

There will be another coronavirus

The SARS-CoV-2 virus took the world by surprise, but by one measure, it arrived right on schedule. The first SARS virus was discovered in 2003; the related MERS virus hit in 2012. Today, we have COVID-19. In other words, novel coronaviruses seem to be making successful jumps to humans very roughly once per decade — and there’s no reason to think they’ll stop after this one.

Unfortunately for us, there’s only been so much cumulative progress when it comes to developing antivirals to fight coronaviruses. As closely related as the SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 viruses are, they’re distinct enough that researchers haven’t discovered a catch-all coronavirus drug. And unfortunately, the SARS and MERS epidemics simply may not have been catastrophic enough to motivate funders, governments, and drug companies to develop proactive antivirals before the next event.

“A non-virologist, if you remind them, will remember it happened,” says virologist Nat Moorman about the SARS and MERS outbreaks. “But the answer you typically hear is ‘yeah, but that wasn’t really that big of a deal,’ not realizing how close we really were to it being that big of a deal. And so, you know, the interest of the public, and at some level the interest of funders, fades over time.”

Moorman and his colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill are determined to keep interest in antivirals high, no matter what course this pandemic ultimately takes. They’re tackling a line of research that could lead to much “broader-spectrum” antivirals: drugs that are effective against this coronavirus, but also the next one to appear — and, possibly, any virus at all. The Verge spoke to Moorman about their angle of antiviral attack, so check out the video above to learn more.