Belgian researchers discover key to COVID-19 attack mechanism

Researchers at UCLouvain have succeeded in identifying the key that enables the coronavirus to attack cells. This was announced by the university on Tuesday. They have also succeeded in blocking the virus from interacting with body cells, thus preventing infection. The discovery, which was published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, raises hopes of an antiviral agent to eradicate the virus.

For two years, the team of David Alsteens, a researcher at UCLouvain's Institute of Biomolecular Sciences and Technologies, has tried to understand the mechanisms the virus uses to infect a cell. They examined the interaction between sialic acids (SAs), a type of sugar residue on the surface of the cell, and the virus's spike protein (S) to determine the role of that interaction in the infection process.

It was already known that the sialic acids around the cells promote cell recognition, so that viruses can more easily identify their targets, but also that they facilitate the attachment of the virus and the infection of the cell. The researchers have now identified a variant of the sialic acids that interacts more strongly with the virus' spike proteins than other sugars. In other words, "they have found the key with which the virus opens the door to the cells", according to the university.

The researchers then decided to lure the virus into its own trap by preventing it from attaching to its host. They blocked the attachment points of the S protein and thus suppressed any interaction with the cell surface. "If the virus cannot attach to the cells, it cannot enter and dies. That's how infection is prevented," said UCLouvain. They added that this discovery has the advantage that it works with any variant of the virus, regardless of mutations.

The research team will now carry out tests on mice, to test whether it works on an organism. The results should make it possible to develop an antiviral drug.

Meanwhile, the number of Belgian COVID-19 hospitalisations has dropped below 2,000, reports the Belgian public health institute Sciensano. Over the past seven days, an average of 125 people have been hospitalised with COVID-19 each day, a decrease of 10 percent. 1,894 patients are still in hospitals (-15 percent), of whom 126 require intensive care (-7 percent). 




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