The coronavirus has thick spikes that seem to latch more easily onto human cells than other viruses, according to a 3D map of its structure

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  • A new study from the University of Minnesota created a 3D model of the new coronavirus and found that it could bind far more efficiently to human cell receptors than the SARS virus.
  • This might explain how the new coronavirus could spread across the globe at such a dizzying speed.
  • This 3D map could help scientists create vaccines that block these cell receptors, stopping the new coronavirus before it can replicate.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A new study offers fresh insight into the unique structure of the novel coronavirus that makes it so infectious.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota created a 3D map of the virus, known technically as Sars-CoV-2. They found that it has a shell of thick spikes that latch onto human cell receptors much more efficiently than Sars, another type of coronavirus that caused a smaller-scale but devastating pandemic in Asia in 2002.Advertisement

Health officials around the world are already recommending social distancing to combat the pandemic because it's clear that infection is spread by coronavirus droplets produced when infected people cough or sneeze.

This study, published in Nature, adds weight to that directive: the team found that even a relatively small amount of infectious droplets inhaled are highly likely to attach themselves to receptors in the body, which can develop into the disease COVID-19.

The finding, first reported by the Guardian, could be a major step for researchers trying to understand the spread of the disease, and how to develop a vaccine, Miryam Wahrman, author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World and a biology professor at William Paterson University, told Insider.
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"Once you've figured the receptor out, it's like a lock in a key," said Wahrman, who was not involved in the study.

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The researchers also studied similar coronaviruses in bats, which bind to ACE-2 receptors in almost exactly the same way, backing up theories that this coronavirus started in bats and mutated as it moved into humans. Advertisement

Those mutations have made Sars-CoV-2 distinct from other coronaviruses, like Sars, which primarily affect the lungs, while the novel coronavirus also latches into the sinuses and the throat. The structure of the novel coronavirus' spikes have a lot to do with that.

"This virus can be more infectious in humans, because there's a great match between the lock and the key, the virus and the receptor. And it can spread more widely in the human population, because it's so efficient at the binding," Wahrman said.

This map could be used to help figure out how to make a vaccine

The study is just a starting point: it only analyzed part of the virus' spike and its host, and needs to be further studied to draw broad conclusions. Advertisement

However, experts are hopeful that this 3D map could help in the search for drugs to stop the novel coronavirus from replicating in the body, preventing severe disease. It could also be used to create a vaccine to stave off future coronavirus infections.

"Within a couple of months, scientists have figured out the whole structure of the virus," said Wahrman. "What this means is scientists can begin to think about drugs that can block a virus from finding and infiltrating our cell to slow down the transmission of the virus."

Experts say the soonest we can expect a vaccine is within 12-18 months, but the wheels are in motion.Advertisement

American corporation Johnson & Johnson announcing that human testing of their coronavirus vaccine will begin by September 2020, while biotech company Moderna has already begun testing its experimental vaccine on human volunteers. German companies like CureVac and BioNTech have also thrown their hats in the ring, while human trials are underway for French biotech company Sanofi's vaccine.

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