University of Alberta virologist works with US teams to prepare for next pandemic

When it comes to the many viruses that have the potential to fuel the world’s next pandemic, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to planning medical treatment. But a one-size-fits-multiple solution may do the trick, says a University of Alberta scientist.

Matthias Götte, a virologist and chair of the U of A’s division of medical microbiology and immunology, leads a team of about 15 people in Edmonton working on how to better prepare the world for the next pandemic.

“COVID-19 has taught us many lessons and we need to get better. We need to be better prepared; we need to react faster,” he told CTV News Edmonton in a recent interview.

His idea is to have some sort of drug template for each of the types of viruses that could lead to a pandemic.

Götte’s team is studying virus families with “high” pandemic potential and the drugs that each are most effective.

“Once a pandemic hits or an outbreak hits, you want to have readily available therapies or medical countermeasures,” Götte said.

“If a new virus shows up that belongs to one of these families of viruses that we’re working on, we have a good starting point and can tune in to the new pathogen. That’s the idea.”

Götte and his team are specifically studying viral polymerase enzymes – also known as the engine of the virus that drives it to multiply and spread.

According to Hery Lee, a third-year PhD student working under Götte, one of the questions they are trying to answer is: “How does the virus react after the virus has been tackled with a specific antiviral agent?”

“Is it going to develop what we call resistance?” she said. “So is the virus going to take something from its arsenal that can counteract the antivirals we’re working with?”

The method has been successful in treating chronic viral diseases, such as HIV and Hepatitis C, Götte noted.

“Now we’re trying to develop antiviral drugs by targeting the virus’s engine at other viruses, such as Ebola.”

Ebola belongs to the filovirus family, as does Marburg, which can cause severe hemorrhagic fever. Other virus families targeted by the U of A team are picornaviruses, which cause the common cold, and flaviviruses, which cause yellow fever and dengue fever.

In a globalized world, more pandemics are likely, Götte believes.

But during past outbreaks — such as from HIV, hepatitis C, Ebola and Zika — scientists have “missed opportunities” to prepare in the same way he’s working on now, the U of A professor says.

“There was a lot of money in the beginning and then the virus disappeared and the money disappeared before we could actually cross the finish line. That must not happen again.”

The U of A researchers are working with colleagues in California and North Carolina under a program funded by the National Institutes of Health in the United States. The new Antiviral Drug Discovery (AViDD) Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern, which includes Götte’s work, are supported by nearly $600 million.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Nahreman Issa

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