Researchers Progress with Virus Prevention


By Kylie Wolfe

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) first made headlines in December of 2019. It originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) classified the virus as a global health emergency, launching many people and places into action. Since then, with new knowledge and numbers, the WHO updated its classification of the coronavirus. It is now considered a pandemic.

Scientists in particular have raced to the front lines, researching the virus and taking steps toward a vaccine or drug treatment. That’s how a team at the University of Texas, Austin, made the initial discovery: a coronavirus spike protein map, an essential step in vaccine development.

How It Works

New vaccines undergo extensive development processes that include exploratory, pre-clinical, clinical, regulatory review and approval, manufacturing, and quality control stages.

The United States Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research regulates this process and continues to oversee production after a vaccine’s release.

Progress for Prevention

As of February 2020, researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, determined the molecular structure of the aforementioned proteins. Knowing the shape and structure helps scientists better understand how to target the virus during product development stages and ultimately prevent the disease (COVID-19).

The team used the genome of the virus to identify genes that code for a particular protein, injected those genes into cells, and produced spike proteins. Then, using cryogenic electron microscopy, researchers generated a three-dimensional map of the protein’s structure.

“The spike is what we want to try and target with vaccines, with antibodies, and with small molecules, so that we can prevent the virus from entering cells,” Jason McLellan, research lead at the University of Texas, Austin, told Chemistry World.

Understanding Viruses

When viruses attack our bodies, immune cells come to the rescue, producing proteins known as antibodies. These proteins bind to a specific region of the virus known as an antigen. Traditional vaccines introduce virus-related antigens to train the body to produce antibodies that fight the virus.

In the case of the coronavirus, spike proteins bind to receptors on cell surfaces, giving the virus a chance to enter. Preventing the proteins from binding would be the most efficient way to stop the virus.

Though researchers have made progress, it will take months, if not years, to produce a vaccine that’s both safe and effective. In the meantime, researchers in Texas are sharing their findings with labs across the globe. They hope that their work will serve as a starting point to help prevent and treat future cases.

Note: The researchers in this article used a Thermo Scientific Krios cryo-TEM for their experiments.

Experts use various terms to describe the spread of a disease or virus. Understanding these terms and concepts can help you assess the severity of what happens in the world around you.


An unexpected rise in the number of cases in a community or country
  • Often limited to a single community
  • May spread across countries
  • Can last a few days or continue for years
The sudden, rapid spread of an infection to many people within a population, community, or region
  • Impacts many people at the same time
  • Typically more widespread than an outbreak
The spread of an infection to many people in different countries across continents
  • Affects a large portion of the population, possibly worldwide
  • Infects more people and causes more deaths than an epidemic

Discussion Questions

  • What’s the relationship between an antibody and an antigen?
  • How do vaccines work?
  • What role do spike proteins play?
  • Would the coronavirus be considered an outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic? Why?


  • Antibody
  • Antigen
  • Vaccine
  • Virus