On 27 March, President Trump said, in describing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), “This whatever they want to call it. You can call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus. You know, you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is.”
Actually, at that time, we did know what it was, and in great detail. COVID-19 is caused by a virus. It is not the flu, nor is it the virus that causes the flu.
The genetic sequence of severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, was made public on 10 January—almost 3 months before the president said he wasn’t sure anyone knew what it was. Since then, it has been sequenced numerous times, providing the genetic information that scientists use to follow how the virus travels and changes (through mutations) around the world.
Scientists have also characterized most of the important proteins of SARS-CoV-2, and I’m pleased that many of these structures appeared in Science.
On 19 February, we published the structure of the spike protein, only 9 days after it was submitted.
On 4 March, we published the structure of the human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor, which is the target of the spike protein when cells are infected. Our 27 March cover (the same day that Trump said he wasn’t sure whether anyone knew what caused COVID-19) illustrated the spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 about to bind the ACE2 receptor on the surface of a human cell.
On 20 March, we published the structure of the main viral protease, which is the most likely target of a small-molecule drug.
On 3 April, we published the structure of a conserved viral epitope in complex with a SARS-CoV-2–specific antibody.
On 10 April, we published the structure of the viral RNA polymerase that is the target of the potential drug remdesivir.
On 23 March, I wrote an editorial saying that managing this crisis is not just fixing a plane while it’s flying—it is fixing a plane that is flying while the blueprints are still being drawn. Well, we have a lot of the blueprints now. It’s a credit to these authors and the editors at Science that we got here so fast.
And despite what you hear, we do know the cause of COVID-19. Down to the atoms.