Ambitious EU project to combat the novel coronavirus
Antiviral agents and new test models

Ulm University

The new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has already claimed several thousand lives worldwide. A specific therapy or vaccination is not yet available. In a recently launched EU project, researchers led by Professors Jan Münch from Ulm University and Thomas Schrader (University of Duisburg-Essen) have set out to accelerate the development of an effective antiviral therapy. In cooperation with other European partners, the researchers want to quickly and efficiently test different potential active substances against the coronavirus. The consortium will obtain 2.8 million euros in funding for the two-year 'Fight nCoV' project, which is led by Stockholm University.

As with other pathogens, the entry process of the coronavirus into the host cell is considered a promising target for antiviral drugs. The “Fight nCoV” project involves three substances known to inhibit this process – these are now investigated and optimised in their effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2. One of these substances are the molecular tweezers developed by Thomas Schrader and Jan Münch: they bind to the virus envelope and destroy the pathogen. The researchers also evaluate a single-stranded oligonucleotide and macromolecular inhibitors, which prevent the interaction of the virus with the target cell.   

To test the efficacy and safety of these agents, the research consortium uses a range of models. In their laboratory in Ulm, scientists will utilize so called “viral pseudotypes” to determine the antiviral efficacy. These pseudotypes mimic the entry process of SARS-CoV-2 but are otherwise not dangerous. The most promising substances will subsequently be tested by European partners for their effectiveness in inhibiting SARS-CoV-2 in cell cultures. Animal models up to primates are used for further investigations in order to start clinical studies as soon as possible. 'We are facing the urgent task of finding an effective therapy for SARS-CoV-2. Therefore, we are making the test models available also to other European research groups that develop anti-Coronavirus agents,' emphasise virologist Münch and chemist Schrader.

The novel coronavirus is a zoonosis, meaning that the pathogen has spread from animals to humans. If the antiviral substances indeed prove effective against SARS-CoV-2, they might also be a possible weapon against future zoonoses or other viral respiratory diseases.

Fight nCoV will be funded by the EU through the HORIZON 2020 project. The Universities of Stockholm (Sweden), Ulm (Germany), Duisburg-Essen (Germany), and Aarhus (Denmark) are joined by the research institutions CEA (France) and Adlego Biomedical (Sweden) in this important endeavour.

Media contact: Annika Bingmann

The EU project "Fight nCoV" declares war on the coronavirus (symbolic image: mattthewafflecat/pixabay)
Prof. Jan Münch
Prof. Jan Münch is a researcher at the Institute of Molecular Virology at Ulm University and its Medical Centre (Photo: University Medical Centre Ulm)