Bonus episode: The virus hunter

Coronaviruses aren’t new. For more than 20 years, Rolf Hilgenfeld, a German virologist has been looking for ways to slow or stop these diseases. This episode is all about what it takes to find a treatment for coronaviruses and what that might mean for the future of COVID-19.

Dr. Mirco Compagnone, a flow cytometry scientist in the biotech lab of TAKIS Biotech, Italy, is seen through a lab door.

Photograph by Francesco Pistilli

Coronaviruses aren’t new. For more than 20 years, Rolf Hilgenfeld, a German virologist has been looking for ways to slow or stop these diseases. It’s been 17 years since SARS, the first major outbreak of a coronavirus, and a treatment still feels like it’s just around the corner. This episode is all about what it takes to find a treatment for coronaviruses and what that might mean for the future of COVID-19.


PETER GWIN (HOST): Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Overheard. We are busy working on new episodes, and can’t wait to bring you our next season in just a few weeks. But in the meantime, we have a special episode about the strange times we’re living in. Like everybody in the world, we’re trying to figure out as much as possible about novel coronavirus. And here’s a little bit of what we’ve found out.

ROLF HILGENFELD (BIOLOGIST): So I didn't want to go to Wuhan because there was the outbreak; I wanted to go to Wuhan because there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and there are people with whom I have collaborated before. 

GWIN: Not many people are interested in traveling these days, but even the most adventurous would think twice before buying a ticket to Wuhan, China. But in January, Rolf Hilgenfeld was doing just that.

HILGENFELD: I knew that would be dangerous to go to Wuhan, but I didn't really know the magnitude of the outbreak there when I traveled. I mean, I had traveled on January 22 to China. At that time, there was 400 cases and nine deaths in Wuhan. So I thought, OK, it's not very likely that I meet an infected person in Wuhan, which was an underestimation of the situation.

GWIN: Rolf Hilgenfeld is a structural biologist at the University of Lübeck in Germany. He traveled to China at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak to further his research on coronaviruses—research which could eventually lead to a drug to treat them.

I’m Peter Gwin, and you’re listening to a special episode of Overheard at National Geographic: A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo—and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week we follow a researcher as he tries to test a compound that could eventually lead to a treatment for coronaviruses.

More after this.

GWIN: Rolf Hilgenfeld’s obsession with coronaviruses started back before it was on everyone’s minds.

HILGENFELD: I have been working on coronaviruses for the past 20 years or so. So even before this SARS outbreak of 2003, I was interested in these viruses.

GWIN: He was interested, but not many other people were.

HILGENFELD: I remember before SARS, the scientific advisory board of my institute in Vienna at that time told me to stop working on these unimportant viruses.

GWIN: They thought he was wasting his time, because 20 years ago coronaviruses didn’t cause serious problems for humans.

HILGENFELD: At that time, we knew two coronaviruses of humans, and the both of them caused only mild forms of the common cold in humans.

GWIN: But Hilgenfeld was drawn to coronaviruses, especially the structure of their proteins, so he pressed forward. Then the world started to care.

[news clip]: From NPR news this is All Things Considered. I’m Michele Norris. And I’m Melissa Block. In Hong Kong today health officials said the number of people suffering from an unusual outbreak of pneumonia had nearly doubled since the weekend. The figure now stands at 83. Worldwide at least 160 people have gotten sick...

HILGENFELD: The game changed when SARS emerged at the end of 2002, and in 2003 we had the first epidemic of this century.

GWIN: When SARS emerged, people were shocked. The virus had spread from animals to humans, and from there infected thousands of people and killed hundreds. There was no treatment, no vaccine, and scientists were scrambling.

But Hilgenfeld was ahead of the curve. He had been studying the structures of coronavirus proteins for years—specifically, an enzyme that helps the virus copy itself. Hilgenfeld thought that molecule—called a protease—could hold the key. If he focused there, maybe he could slow or even stop the virus.

GWIN: So basically you're trying to identify its weak spot.

HILGENFELD: Yeah, that's correct.

GWIN: But the SARS outbreak came and went. It was deadly, but not very contagious, at least not compared to COVID-19, and it was much more easily contained. And as the danger of SARS fizzled out, so did the money that funds the research.

HILGENFELD: No pharma company will develop a drug for a market of 12,000 cases. They cannot, because it would be a big loss of money.

GWIN: So Hilgenfeld changed strategies. Instead of just focusing on coronaviruses, he broadened his research to include enteroviruses—a different type of virus that happens to share some similar features. They’re responsible for a wider range of human illnesses, like hand, foot, and mouth disease and some forms of the flu.

HILGENFELD: And if you have a drug which can fight coronavirus and enteroviruses at the same time or with the same potency, then you have something which the pharmaceutical industry should be interested in.

GWIN: So Hilgenfeld set out to find a chemical that could fight lots of different viruses, a chemical that a pharmaceutical company could then turn into a drug. That’s what he was working on when the new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan.

GWIN: Where were you when you heard about this new coronavirus in China?

HILGENFELD: Actually, I was in Mozambique, Africa, because we planned a conference on emerging viruses—which I organize every year in Mozambique—when we heard of the new virus. And we analyzed the RNA sequence of the new virus in Mozambique, and we found this is going to be interesting—and we also already thought this is going to be a problem. But of course we never imagined the magnitude of the problem as it is now. We never imagined this could be a pandemic. But, yes, I expected an epidemic.

GWIN: Hilgenfeld and his team already had a molecule that was effective against some coronaviruses. They were close to publishing a paper on it. But first, they wanted to test it on the new coronavirus. And just to be clear, they wanted to test it in a lab, in a petri dish.

HILGENFELD: But something unfortunate happened. Before I left for China, I gave an interview to a small radio station here in Lübeck, and they reflected the interview correctly more or less on the internet. But they chose as a headline "Wuhan virus: Will Rescue Come From Lübeck?" and I never saw that. And while I was on the plane, some Chinese students living in Lübeck and in Hamburg, they translated this poorly into Chinese—and they wrote that I'm traveling to Wuhan to test my compound in patients.

GWIN: Oh boy.

HILGENFELD: So by the time I landed in Shanghai, this had been clicked already 10 million times.

GWIN: Holy cow. Wow.

HILGENFELD: And I was welcomed as the hero bringing the rescue to China.

GWIN: Oh man.

HILGENFELD: Which was quite embarrassing. And I had to hide from the press next few days.

GWIN: How did you hide? Where do you hide from 10 million people?

HILGENFELD: I hid in the apartment of a friend. And I didn't leave this apartment in four days. And the next few days after that, I gave interviews—as many as I could—trying to correct this impression that I'm coming to rescue the patients in Wuhan.

GWIN: But it was already too late. The public deemed him a hero with a cure, but anyone who understood the science knew that couldn’t possibly be the case. He was unable to start fresh with local Chinese researchers, and he never even made it to Wuhan.

HILGENFELD: Who would collaborate with me when I'm announced in the press as a hero who comes with the rescue?

GWIN: So you were never able to share your samples with your peers in Wuhan or in China in general?

HILGENFELD: Yes, that is true.

NSIKAN AKPAN (EDITOR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC): You know, over the last decade, we've seen what the ramifications of misinformation can be.

GWIN: This is Nsikan Akpan. He’s an editor on our science desk, and he’s been helping to coordinate our coverage of the coronavirus.

AKPAN: I haven’t seen a good answer for how we stop misinformation from spreading everywhere, like a virus.

GWIN: Even though the internet is filled with supposed remedies for COVID-19—some of which are dangerous—the reality is that a specific treatment doesn’t exist yet.

AKPAN: It's emergency care right now. That's all we have. What we don’t have is a specific treatment for the novel coronavirus, right? We don't have a vaccine that could prevent it. And we don't have, you know, an antiviral that might stop it specifically.

GWIN: One of the reasons we don’t have a treatment yet is because before now, we haven’t been looking very hard.

AKPAN: It's so funny about coronaviruses because, I mean, they literally cause common colds, right? They're probably one of the most prominent infections that we have. But, yeah, there isn't a whole lot of money that goes into coronavirus research, you know, compared to something like influenza, definitely compared to something like cancer or diabetes. 

GWIN: Of course, now that’s changing.

HILGENFELD: There's many people working on coronaviruses, especially now. Many people jumped to that field. They give up their work on herpes virus or other viruses and start working on coronaviruses because they feel obliged to do so. Or they feel that there will be more research money in this field in the future—I don't know. But there's very few people who do antivirals. Very, very few.

GWIN: Hilgenfeld says people are testing drugs that treat other ailments to see if those can be repurposed for COVID-19. But there’s very few people starting from scratch, building a custom molecule.

HILGENFELD: If you ask for people who prepare antivirals for coronavirus— the new coronavirus—and you restrict it to people who start from scratch to make their own molecules, it's certainly less than 20 in the world. We can only hope that big pharma will enter the scene and will put more people onto this subject.

GWIN: Several weeks after Hilgenfeld returned from China, a colleague in Wuhan sent samples of the novel coronavirus to Germany, where a lab was finally able to test his compound—and it worked. This molecule could stop the virus from growing in human cells in a petri dish. That’s a big deal, but probably not the big deal we’re all hoping for. It’s just one of the first steps of the drug-development process.

HILGENFELD: What I have designed and proposed is an inhibitor, but it's not a drug. So it has to be developed into a drug. It will come too late for fighting COVID-19, for fighting this viral outbreak of SARS-CoV-2. But I hope it will be ready for SARS-3.

GWIN: So is there a SARS-3 already, or are you just projecting there will be inevitably a SARS-3?

HILGENFELD: I'm pretty much convinced of that.

GWIN: He’s convinced that something like COVID-19 will happen again—and he wants to be prepared for it. But his compound isn’t ready yet. Before it can be used as a drug, it needs to be tested in animals, and then healthy humans, and then sick humans—to make sure it’s safe. That’s the most time-consuming and expensive part of drug development, and Hilgenfeld says it could take between five and 10 years to do all that testing. By then, the worst of this outbreak will be far behind us, and it may no longer be profitable for drug companies to pursue. But Hilgenfeld says governments should invest in developing drugs like these for other reasons.

HILGENFELD: We protect ourselves against all kinds of risks in life. For instance, the office where I'm speaking now has two doors, because if one is blocked by fire, I still must have a second one to get out. So the fire in front of the door of my office is much less likely than the next coronavirus outbreak will hit the world. We know that. And we know it's coming. But people, they tend to forget unpleasant events. And so that must change. The attitude must change. We must be aware of the danger.

GWIN: Because if we are aware of the danger, the next time this happens, we’ll be prepared.

More after this.

GWIN: If you’re interested in learning more about COVID-19, take a look at the coronavirus page on our website. We have easy-to-read explanations on the pandemic as well as some unusual takes, such as what an astronaut has learned from social isolation, and what people used to use before the invention of toilet paper.

And of course we encourage you to visit the CDC website for the most up-to-date information on how to stay safe—and keep others safe—during this crisis.

All of this and more can be found in our show notes. Look for them in your podcast app.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Laura Sim. Our editor is Ibby Caputo. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

I’d also like to thank our interview guests for recording themselves in social isolation. They really did an amazing job helping us get this episode off the ground. I’d also like to thank my wife for letting me use her closet as my recording studio.

And special thanks to Dina Greinert.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director. And I’m your host, Peter Gwin.

Thanks for listening. Stay safe out there, and we’ll see you all soon with more episodes.