Associate Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases Tarja Sironen is familiar with coronaviruses. Her research group looks for coronaviruses, which are found in several animal species and usually originate in bats.
Sironen began serving in her position, which is shared by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine, at the University of Helsinki in February. In recent weeks, her job has been thoroughly transformed, and the research topic has become a burning one in a dramatic way.
At the University of Helsinki, there are a number of research groups conducting research related to the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus. Sironen is collaborating closely with Professor Olli Vapalahti and Professor Anu Kantele. In basic research, the focus is on monitoring the mutation of the virus during the epidemic and understanding the causes of a serious clinical picture as well as the virus-cell interactions. Such knowledge will help in developing treatments for the COVID-19 disease.
Alongside basic research, new diagnostic techniques and drug therapies are urgently being developed.
“We are developing rapid tests and, in particular, antibody tests, in regard to which the aim is as fast a deployment as possible. Our focus is on tests that are simple to carry out and that don’t require a lot of human resources. Rapid testing could even be used at home,” Sironen says.
There are already a handful of rapid tests manufactured in China available on the market.
In the field of pharmacotherapies, the primary focus is on antiviral drugs, a number of which have already received marketing authorisation for use in humans.
“We are investigating whether they are also effective against the coronavirus. If existing drugs present suitable options, it all comes down solely to the speed of production. Such drugs could already become available in the next few months.”
In addition, new antibodies for the prevention of the disease are under development.
“Coronavirus infection generates antibodies in the infected individuals, but antibodies could also be administered as a drug to patients, bypassing the need to wait for their body to start producing them.”
Humans increase their own risk
Viruses new to humans are almost always transmitted by wildlife. These diseases, known as zoonotic diseases, include SARS, MERS, Ebola and swine influenza. What particularly occupies scientists’ minds is why certain – fairly few – viruses have the ability to move between species.
“We are able to list hundreds or thousands of viruses occurring in wildlife, but we have very few means of predicting which of them are going to transform into human pathogens,” Sironen says.
Wildlife trade and other human activity increase the associated risks.
“Diseases are transmitted to humans also because humans are seizing ground for themselves around the globe, encountering new viruses in the wild in the process.”
In Kenya, Sironen’s research group has been looking for viruses that occur in the same areas in bats, rodents and production animals. Sironen also contributed to a group coordinated by the University of Helsinki and the University of Nairobi, which identified the Bombali ebolavirus in bats.
“Information on new threats is in itself important. This way, high-risk areas and routes of infection can be identified, and diagnostic techniques developed in advance.”
Diseases that were dangerous in the past may be harmless today. Coronaviruses that cause the common cold most likely belong to this group of viruses that have lost their potency. Viruses do not particularly benefit from being dangerous, as hosts who retain the ability to stay mobile are more effective in spreading them.
Surprised by speed
The criteria for testing for the coronavirus vary so much by country that an accurate mortality rate is not known.
“The effectiveness of the virus’s spread took us all by surprise. The rapid transmission is partially explained by the fact that the disease is transmitted by patients with very mild symptoms or even before any symptoms occur. This coronavirus behaves differently from earlier coronaviruses,” Sironen says.
The dangerousness of a communicable disease can be assessed from two different perspectives: how lethal it is to individuals and how dangerous it is to the population as a whole.
Sironen notes that, based on mortality, rabies is probably among the most dangerous. If antibody medication cannot be administered within 24 hours of contagion, the fatality rate is 100%. In the case of Ebola, the mortality rate has ranged between 25% and 90%, but figures under 10% can now be reached with the help of novel drugs and effective treatment.
However, tuberculosis, malaria and similar diseases can be considered the most dangerous to humanity, as the number of infected individuals and dead patients is high, even if the relative risk is low. The seriousness of the novel coronavirus is also associated with a high number of disease cases and the rapid spread of the disease.
Sironen believes the research efforts currently underway have an enormous significance for the functioning of the healthcare system and society. In addition to the pressing demand for tests and drugs, research-based knowledge on disease transmission is relevant to political decision-making. Preventive measures have such a severe impact on society that they must be appropriately targeted and scaled.
A donation to research is a contribution to finding solutions.
“Donations really make a difference in research, since urgent research also urgently requires funds. That’s why every single donation matters. Speed is now of the essence,” Sironen says.
Read more on COVID-19 website that lists common efforts of researchers and research groups working on the ongoing pandemic COVID-19 in collaboration with Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) and The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).