The CDC is growing samples of the novel coronavirus so researchers can develop medical countermeasures and better understand how the latest SARS-like virus has spread, the agency’s respiratory disease director said.
“We are growing the virus in cell culture, which is necessary for further studies, including the additional genetic characterizations,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a Monday telephone press briefing.
Those sample viruses will allow companies like Gilead Sciences Inc. and AbbVie Inc. that are pursuing potential treatments to see if those drugs can work. It’s not immediately clear how long it will take the CDC to isolate the virus.
“Once isolated, the virus will be available in the BEI resources repository, which is an NIH resource that supplies organisms and reagents to the broad community of microbiology and infectious disease researchers,” she said.
The Chinese government had provided the genetic sequence to the new coronavirus strain, which allowed U.S. researchers to develop a potential vaccine candidate and a diagnostic test. However, the actual virus is necessary to develop possible treatments.
“You can’t test the drugs in an animal model in vitro unless you actually have the virus,” Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview. “You need more than the sequence so that’s the reason why we’re waiting to see if we can get some samples.”
As of Jan. 21, the NIH didn’t have samples from the Chinese. But Fauci said cases in the U.S. means the medical research agency can likely get samples from the CDC.
The CDC has also uploaded the genome of the virus into a genetic database based on the first two cases reported in the U.S., Messonnier said.
“All the sequences we’ve extracted are similar to the one that China initially posted a couple of weeks ago. This means that right now and based on CDC’s analysis of the data, it doesn’t look like the virus has mutated,” she said.
The novel strain of the respiratory virus that came out of Wuhan, China, late last year has now grown to nearly 3,000 cases. There are five known cases in the U.S., and 110 people who have been identified as a “person of interest” because they were potentially exposed in Wuhan or had contact with someone with a confirmed case of the coronavirus. Thirty-two people tested negative.
Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses that range from the common cold to more severe illnesses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
The 2019 novel strain appears to be more similar to SARS, but Messonnier said Jan. 27 that the immediate health risk in the U.S. remains low.
“There are just a handful of cases and the virus is not spreading in the community,” she said.