October 29. Back in the 1980s, scientists in the U.K. performed an experiment that — at first glance — sounds unethical. “Volunteers came into the lab, and someone squirted virus up their nose,” says computational biologist Jennie Lavine.
The researchers took a liquid packed with coronavirus particles and intentionally tried to make 15 volunteers sick.
Ten people got infected. The other five fought off the virus, says Lavine, who’s now at the biotechnology company Karius but was at Emory University when she spoke to NPR.
Then the researchers waited a year and repeated the experiment. They wondered: Did getting sick from the coronavirus the first time protect people from the second exposure a year later? Or could people get reinfected a year later?
Now, this coronavirus injected up the volunteers’ noses wasn’t SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, Lavine is quick to point out. “No. No. Nobody got very sick. I think they measured disease severity by how many tissue boxes a person used. The experiment was performed with all of the proper ethical considerations.”
The researchers were studying another coronavirus, called 229E, that causes only a mild cold in humans. But the results of that experiment offer some intriguing insights into the possible endgame of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When COVID-19 erupted worldwide, there was some hope we could put the genie back into the bottle, so to speak. That is, the world could completely wipe out the virus from the human population as it did for the first SARS coronavirus back in 2003.
Some scientists are starting to think that eventually COVID-19 could turn into a disease that looks more similar to those from these other coronaviruses — in other words, a mild flu-like illness.