CHICAGO (CBS) — Drugs that were in development for SARS could be an effective treatment for novel coronavirus (COVID-19), new research finds. The issue now: Those drugs were never brought to market because the SARS outbreak ended and still need to be tested, experts say.

A potential drug target has been identified in a newly mapped protein of the virus. The structure was solved by a team including the University of Chicago (U of C), the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine (UCR).

The scientists said their findings suggest drugs that had previously been in development to treat the earlier SARS outbreak could now be developed as effective drugs against COVID-19. Studies published 10 years ago found using drugs to inhibit the protein Nsp15 in SARS can slow the virus spread. This suggests drugs designed to target Nsp15 could be developed as effective drugs against COVID-19.

The protein Nsp15 from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is 89% identical to the protein from the earlier outbreak of SARS. SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for the current outbreak of the new COVID-19.

Over the past two months, the pathogen infected more than 80,000 people and caused at least 2,700 deaths. However, most people, about 80 percent, only exhibit mild flu symptoms with coronavirus.

Northwestern University Karla Satchell is leading a team of scientists investigating the virus to understand how to stop it from replicating.

“The NSP15 protein has been investigated in SARS as a novel target for new drug development, but that never went very far because the SARS epidemic went away, and all new drug development ended,” said Satchell. “Some inhibitors were identified but never developed into drugs.”

“The inhibitors that were developed for SARS now could be tested against this protein.”

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