The coronavirus research field is small and modestly funded, and until very recently, was not viewed as a fertile patch on which to build a career. There’s been a boom-and-bust phenomenon in coronavirus research over the past two decades, as a series of animal viruses — SARS, MERS, now 2019-nCoV — have triggered outbreaks in people, causing a flurry of interest that subsides until the next flare up.
Scientists who have applied for funding to study coronaviruses say that they feel more pressure to explain why their research is relevant after an outbreak has ended. Those in the field knew that there was much more to be gleaned about the coronaviruses that already circulate in humans — and that a new coronavirus could start making people sick at any time.
The waxing and waning interest in coronaviruses has perpetuated gaps in the scientific understanding of the pathogens. Scientists don’t know how long people remain immune to a coronavirus after being infected. There are still looming questions about transmission. There aren’t any drugs approved specifically to treat coronaviruses. Work begun to test existing drugs to see if they were effective against SARS was abandoned when that threat faded; having that information now would have given doctors in China help they badly need.
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