Virus Lab: South Florida scientists searching for breakthrough in coronavirus fight

(WSVN) - As the number of coronavirus cases increase around the world, right here in South Florida, the race is on to develop a vaccine. Some of the world’s leading virus researchers call our area home. In tonight’s 7 Investigates, Kevin Ozebek takes us into their labs.

In these labs, don’t even think about shaking hands. With the scientists here, it’s elbow bumps only, because right now, they cannot afford to get sick.

Hyeryun Choe, Scripps Research scientist: “Then we cannot work on coronavirus to help people so, yes, we are under stress.”

Hyeryun Choe and her husband, Michael Farzan, are viral infection experts at the Scripps Research Campus in Jupiter.

Michael Farzan, Scripps Research scientist: “We’ve just been working very hard. We’re strongly motivated in a way that we’re not normally motivated.”

They and many of their colleagues dropped what they were doing to focus on fighting the coronavirus. Testing is underway on what they call “engineered antibodies.” They’re man-made proteins that potentially could boost our immune system to better defend against the coronavirus.

The pressure is on to find a breakthrough fast.

Stacey Deloye, Scripps Research: “A month ago, this was an interesting intellectual problem, ‘Oh, there’s a new virus to study,’ but it’s here. It’s in our state, it’s in our country.”

With hundreds of Americans already infected, Scripps scientists are digging through their vault of 14,000 drugs already approved for human consumption. The hope is one of them could ease coronavirus symptoms.

Other specialists are zeroing in on a protein that sits on top of the virus.

Michael Farzan: “There’s a protein on the virus whose job is to move the virus into your cells. That protein is the most important target for a vaccine.”

There are now about 100 scientists at Scripps Research labs doing work relating to the coronavirus. Some of them are chemists. Others are biologists. To find a vaccine, they say it is crucial their fields come together.

Stacey Deloye: “Making vaccines requires many different disciplines. Everything we do is blended. Biochemistry, the concept of biochemistry was kind of invented at Scripps Research.”

Because these are the best minds in the best equipped labs, the weight of the world is now on these researchers.

Hyeryun Choe: “They work day and night. They just go home to sleep and come back.”

Michael Farzan: “I couldn’t be prouder of the people who are working like crazy here.”

But in this line of work, it’s not effort that counts. It’s formulating vaccines, drugs and treatments that work when the world needs it the most.

Michael Farzan: “I want to help people. I wish I could stop all infectious diseases.”

And that’s what these South Florida scientists are determined to find.

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