University of Manitoba scientist part of team working to develop drugs to fight COVID-19

University of Manitoba researcher Dr. Brian Mark is studying coronavirus in the hopes of developing an antiviral drug or a vaccine to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Brian Mark searching for weakness in the molecular biology of novel coronavirus

University of Manitoba researcher Dr. Brian Mark is studying the molecular biology of coronavirus with the goal of developing an antiviral drug or a vaccine to combat the spread of COVID-19. (John Einarson/CBC)

A Winnipeg-based researcher is playing a key role in a national effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

University of Manitoba scientist Dr. Brian Mark is studying the molecular biology of novel coronavirus to find weakness that can be targeted for developing antiviral drugs and vaccines.

"What has to happen now is to reduce the rate of the spread so that the health-care system can cope with the number of infected people," he told CBC's Janet Stewart.

Mark, a professor in the university's department of microbiology, is part of one of 47 research teams across the country that received money through several agencies, non-profits and the federal government for studying coronavirus.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu announced last week the federal government is spending $27 million on research with the goal of mitigating the outbreak and preventing misinformation.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the global spread of the virus a pandemic. Hours later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1-billion package — including another $275 million for more research such as vaccine development — to help Canadians cope with the outbreak.

Half a million dollars over two years is going to Mark and his team of two Ontario researchers, lead investigator Dr. Sachdev Sidhu of University of Toronto and Dr. Roman Melnyk of the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children.

Mark's prior work on coronavirus is being applied to target antiviral drug strategies against SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19.

He has been trying to uncover what role proteins and enzymes play in disease, and how they can help in antibiotic drug resistance, viral immune evasion and human genetic disorders.

Dr. Brian Mark of the University of Manitoba's microbiology department is examining the molecular structure of coronavirus to identify weakness that can be targeted with an antiviral drug or vaccine. (Submitted by University of Manitoba)

Mark said the novel coronavirus is about 90 per cent similar to the SARS coronavirus that emerged in 2003 — except it is more infectious and less lethal.

"In fact, coronarviruses are quite well understood as far as how they're comprised and how they replicate, but there's still a significant amount of research that needs to go into developing a strategy to routinely make vaccines against them."

Both branches of the immune system need to be tapped — an antibody-based immune response, in which the body produces antibodies to bind onto the surface of the virus and neutralize it, and the cell-mediated response, which trains the immune system to recognize cells that are infected with the virus so they can be destroyed — he said.

Mark said he is not optimistic there will be a vaccine developed to counter this active outbreak.

"It takes time, and activating both branches of the immune system … is particularly challenging, so I would have to say the chances are lower."

In the meantime, the research team is trying to identify a protein that the virus needs to replicate in hopes of reducing its duplication rate.

Others are trying to repurpose existing drugs to treat COVID-19. "We'll have to wait and see how that pans out," he said. If successful, he said it would likely be reserved for the most vulnerable people who are extremely ill.

"If you start giving it to too many people, the virus can develop resistance quite easily to it."

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As of early Wednesday, Canada had 101 reported cases of COVID-19. Manitoba has no confirmed cases to date.

Mark's advice for riding it out: distance yourself from people, limit travel, and postpone or limit large gatherings.

"If everybody gets infected all at once, then the health-care system will struggle, so it's social distancing and changing behaviour which can help reduce spread."

With files from Janet Stewart