The deadly coronavirus arrived by courier on February 6, delivered to a windowless air-locked laboratory in a secret location on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. It came sealed in two 500-microliter vials, wrapped inside plastic pouches, placed inside a third sealed plastic container, all packed with dry ice.

A team of scientists — protected head-to-toe by Tyvek body suits with battery-powered respirators — opened the vials, got down to work and haven’t stopped since. Members of an elite lab of virologists at the university’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, their mission is to come up with a drug to treat the pathogen that has already infected over 90,000 people and killed more than 3,000.

For veteran researcher and lab leader Ralph Baric, it’s the moment he has both long feared and expected. As early as the 1990s, Baric’s work was raising red flags: Coronaviruses — so named for the crown-like spikes that help them invade cells — had an extraordinarily high ability to mutate and adapt. That suggested new coronaviruses might spread into humans in the future. In one study, he showed coronaviruses that infected mice could rapidly adapt to invade hamster cells.

“It was not that difficult to evolve strains that could jump between species,” Baric says.

Almost 30 years later, that’s exactly what’s occured with the deadly new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. Scientists believe it began in a cave somewhere in China, with bats flying off to spread the virus to another animals in the wild. Some of those animals eventually wound up in one of China’s open-air, or so-called wet, markets where live animals are caged in close proximity — a perfect setting for transmitting viruses to humans.

Until two months ago, Baric was little known outside academic circles. When he began his career, coronaviruses were understood as causing little more than a common cold in people. But his work has suddenly taken on new urgency with the appearance of the new coronavirus.

Baric's 30-person team was one of the first in the U.S. to receive samples of the virus isolated from a patient in Washington by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A handful of other labs are also racing to find anything that might slow the virus’ spread or ease its symptoms, the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine among them.

Baric’s team is growing as much of the virus as it can to test possible drugs for their ability to inhibit the virus inside human lung cells in a test tube. This first round of testing will likely wrap up soon. If it works, scientists will test a slew of new drugs in mice that have been engineered to carry human lung receptors that the coronavirus can infect.

“Now that we have the virus, it is a lot of people working all the time,” says Lisa Gralinski, an assistant professor under Baric.

The pace is just as frenzied at the few other labs with samples. “It has been 18-to-20-hour days for the last two months,” says Matthew Frieman, a University of Maryland virologist and a Baric protégé, who was also among the first to receive the virus.

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