Researcher traces origin of COVID-19

As we begin the near year, experts are still working hard to learn more about COVID-19 to learn how to fight it. We caught up with a lead researcher in Taiwan about new information he has discovered about the origin of the novel virus.

As COVID-19 has stumped researchers for a year, new information continues to surface daily about the highly contagious virus. At top of that research are drug makers trying to figure out how to successfully treat it.

"One of the things you need to do in developing COVID therapeutics, which Atossa Therapeutics is involved in, is identify the origin of a virus, what it looked like at the beginning, and then how it began to change as it infected humans. So in investigating that process, I found an unusual pattern in what's called a genetic cluster. Four patients with literally the same virus or only a tiny number of changes and viruses that represent both the very first version that entered humans and the second are called Clad A and Clad B. These four patients were seen at the end of December and early January, at the PLA Hospital in Wuhan China.  PLA is the military hospital there. That was really the first genetic cluster and they are so close together, it's very clear that they were passing the infection among themselves. So there's lots of questions that raises probably more questions than answers: were they on a military mission together to southern China, what is the relationship? Why were they at the military hospital at that time? And then the second point is 100 meters from that hospital is a subway station," explains Dr. Quay.

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Dr. Quay then took this information and linked the first 100 patients in Wuhan to that subway station.

"Every patient went to a hospital near Line Two. So effectively, you can go from the PLA Hospital to Line Two, and then you can go to the Wuhan airport. And you can go to the streets of Houston, without ever going outside again. And so I think this remarkable combination of the PLA Hospital is the starting point and Line Two of their subway system is the real conduit to their airport is the answer about where it began. So, there is a database of 170,000 sequences. If you go in there and you basically ask, ‘what were the earliest sequences that are at the same location?’, you come up with the four patients at PLA hospital. And then using public information, I identified the first hundred patients in December through the first week of January, and identify what hospital they went to. Then using the hospital pattern in Wuhan, in the nine other subway stations, I was able to say with a probability of one and 68,000, that Line Two was the conduit for all of these cases. So it's a statistical analysis around which hospital they went to, and which line in their subway system is closest to that hospital," explains Dr. Quay.

So why do we want and need to know this?

"Two things, so first back to the origin question. There was an early story about it coming from a seafood market. And in fact that market is about five train stops on Line Two from the hospital, so that is consistent. There are also some people who think it began in a laboratory, called the Wuhan Institute of Virility that also is on Line Two. But for our own work at Atossa Therapeutics, we will use these early genetic changes, the amount of change between the four patients and be able to predict where this virus is going to be in another six months or 18 months, but to be sure our therapeutics will meet the changing genetics of the virus. It really sets the pace for us. We've just completed our first phase one with a nasal spray as sort of a chemical vaccine. We're very excited because it appears that this research on the origin is going to be able to be matched by our therapeutic down the road," states Dr. Quay.

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As for if COVID-19 started in a market or lab, Dr. Quay says he believes we’re close to finding out.

"There are a lot of people working on that question, and I think their answers could be coming out in the next few weeks to months," says Dr. Quay.

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