Researchers at the World Health Organization have called Gilead Sciences Inc.'s remdesivir, developed with Baric’s assistance, as the most promising agent identified so far against the new virus. Trials of the drug are underway in hard hit areas of China, and Gilead says it expects results by April.

To speed the efforts, government agencies are redirecting existing funds to bolster coronavirus research. Congress is close to an agreement to greenlight about $7.5 billion in emergency funding, some of which will be for drug and vaccine development. The government is working with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Johnson & Johnson to create new drugs or identify existing ones in the hope of quickly finding something that can slow down the global scourge.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of new technologies. Our job is to comb through those as quickly as possible,’’ says Rick Bright, director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services. “The ultimate goal is to get as many ideas going” as they can.

No one is more aware of that urgency than Baric, who stands out as a leader in the campaign. Suddenly at the center of the action, he seems uneasy in the limelight, preferring to focus on his work in his office piled high with research papers, virology books and framed patents he hasn't gotten around to hanging up.

His warnings about the dangers of coronaviruses were first proven on the mark when SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, swept through China and other countries in 2002 and 2003, eventually killing almost 800. The virus originated in bats and is thought to have passed through palm civets on its way to people.

By 2012, a deadly pathogen from camels, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), began killing people in the region. Eventually, more than 850 died.

In 2015, Baric and his colleagues were able to show that SARS-like viruses in Chinese horseshoe bats posed a particular threat to cause a new outbreak. The virus spike in the bat coronavirus was unusually adaptable, allowing it to recognize receptors in multiple species, including human lung cells.

Over the last five years, Baric, working closely with Vanderbilt University infectious-disease specialist Mark Denison, tested almost 200,000 drugs against SARS, MERS and other bat coronavirus strains.  He found at least two dozen that appeared to hinder the virus.

Among the most promising was Gilead’s remdesivir, a drug that fared poorly when used against a recent Ebola outbreak in Africa. In the lab, it worked against numerous coronavirus strains, including SARS and other bat coronaviruses that are similar to the new strain. Every coronavirus it was tested on, “it had high potency and efficacy,” Denison says.

That work was fortuitous. In early January, Baric got an urgent call from an infectious-disease colleague to send his unpublished data on remdesivir to colleagues in China who were dealing with a then-mysterious outbreak. Baric says he “was shocked” to see how fast the coronavirus was spreading.