‘The work we’re doing is cutting edge’: What the fight against coronavirus looks like in Madison

MADISON, Wis. – As coronavirus testing capabilities come to Wisconsin, researchers are doing cutting-edge work to find a cure and vaccine in Madison.

Asst. Professor of Biochemistry Robert Kirchdoerfer leads a dedicated coronavirus program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that is currently working to come up with a cure and vaccine for the novel coronavirus as it spreads throughout the world.

“It’s a very complicated process,” Kirchdoerfer said. “We use really high resolution imaging techniques with a brand new Cryo-electron microscopy center here on campus to essentially examine how the virus works in the first step to figuring out how to defeat the virus. So we look at a viral entry, how the virus gets into the target cells, as well as how the virus makes more copies of its genome.”

Between innovating ways to battle the virus, Kirchdoerfer educates the public, including speaking at the ‘Perspectives on China’s Coronavirus Crisis’ panel sponsored by the Wisconsin China Initiative and the Center for East Asian Studies Monday night.

Speakers’ topics ranged from molecular virology to the spread of misinformation on social media in China and beyond. The head of the Wisconsin China Initiative, Jerry Yin, said the United States needs to be ready just in case.

“We need to learn from (China’s) mistakes and good points,” Yin said. “I think it’s probably time we think about it and proactively prepare for things that hopefully don’t happen but might.”

Yin said that includes containment strategies and testing kits.

The Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene is now able to do its own testing rather than relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think we’re going to find more cases because we’re doing a better job of surveillance,” Kirchdoerfer said. “I think that does make a difference and can make a positive difference in containing the disease.”

Kirchdoerfer said there are a couple of groups doing similar work to his lab but “certainly the work we’re doing is cutting-edge.” The earliest he expects a vaccine will be ready for the public is about 8 months, which he said is the best case estimation for a vaccine being developed by the National Institutes for Health and the biotech company Moderna.

“It is incredibly quick,” Kirchdoerfer said. “Normally when we’re talking about drug discovery and antiviral development we’re talking about five or 10 years, so this is very accelerated, but they still want to go through all the safety checks, make sure things don’t have horrible side effects, before they ever get into wider human use.”

He said the disease is more dangerous for the elderly but most people will get through the virus outbreak.

“I would say the majority of the population is going to get through this just fine,” Kirchdoerfer said.