Scientists have announced they have developed an animal model for the new coronavirus, an important development in the study of the new disease agent.
The work was done by researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.
The team, led by virologist Vincent Munster, found that the new coronavirus causes pneumonia in macaque monkeys.
Scientists have been working to develop an animal model since the virus was discovered last year.
Animal models are needed to study how a virus causes disease and to test potential tools to protect against it — drugs that might mitigate the infection and perhaps eventually candidate vaccines.
Munster says the team tried a smaller animal, which would have been easier for laboratories to work with, but the virus did not infect hamsters.
Dutch scientists have also been trying to develop an animal model for the virus, but found it doesn't infect ferrets. That's a bit of a surprise. Ferrets are the primary animal model for influenza and for the SARS virus, which is related to the new coronavirus.
Macaques would not have been anyone's first choice for an animal model. The animals are large and expensive, and many people object to the use of non-human primates for research.
"I think any small animal model would be preferable," Munster admits.
Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, who first identified the new virus last June, agrees, but says it is important to have a model in which to study this virus.
"When patients arrived in hospitals in Europe, we have been asked several times what treatment could be given to them," Fouchier, who is with the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, said in an email.
"Animal models such as this one may serve pre-clinical evaluation of intervention options, which will be quite useful if more patients are diagnosed with the virus."