This 14-Year-Old’s Discovery Could Lead to a Cure for COVID-19

The student won $25,000 in a national science competition for her achievement.
Frankie Lantican
Singapore
October 19, 2020, 10:31am
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Photo: Courtesy of 3M and Discovery Education

With no clear end in sight to the pandemic, there is an urgent need for a cure to COVID-19. As scientists around the world work to develop possible vaccines, one 14-year-old girl from Texas has made a new discovery that could lead to a potential treatment.

On Wednesday, Anika Chebrolu from Frisco, Texas was named the winner of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge after discovering a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-COV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

The competition opened in December 2019 and invited students in grades five to eight to find a unique solution to an everyday problem. Anika won $25,000, a special destination trip, and the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist” for her achievement.

Her discovery could lead to important developments in COVID-19 research. By binding to the spike protein in the coronavirus, the molecule she found can potentially prevent virus entry into the host cell, and can be used in creating a potential drug to cure COVID-19.

Anika used in-silico methodology — methods and experiments that make use of computers — to screen millions of small molecules. She originally planned for her project to focus on the influenza virus, but pivoted once COVID-19 hit and she realized the severity of the pandemic. Anika was in eighth grade when she submitted the project.

She told CNN that she hopes to work with other scientists and researchers to develop her discovery into an actual cure for the virus.

At the moment, the World Health Organization (WHO) is tracking over 170 candidate vaccines around the world. However, since many of them are still in early development, the effectiveness of these vaccines are still unknown. Vaccines go through multiple stages of testing and experts predict that a vaccine will only be available to the public in 2021, at the earliest.

In August, Russia was the first country to claim to have developed a vaccine for COVID-19. However, many were skeptical as President Vladimir Putin had ordered to speed up clinical trials. The vaccine, which was not subject to the extensive Phase III testing, was registered after less than two months of human testing. Experts have said that the vaccine is based on a common cold virus, which many people have been exposed to, potentially limiting its effectiveness. Other countries working on vaccines include the United Kingdom, Germany, and China.

At the moment, there are no specific vaccines or drugs for COVID-19. Developing one to prevent or cure infection from the novel coronavirus could help decrease the number of fatalities and help hospitals manage patients better.

As of posting, there have been a total of over 40 million cases of COVID-19 and 1.1 million deaths around the world. The United States and India have the most number of cases, with 8.1 million and 7.5 million total COVID-19 cases respectively. Few places across the globe have successfully managed  the virus, including New Zealand, Taiwan, and Singapore.