Morgridge Institute for Research Virology Director Paul Ahlquist identifies both research advancements and social science as the key to tackling the next pandemic.

The private biomedical institute works closely with UW-Madison and has the flexibility and risk capital to pursue unproven research questions. Morgridge has long worked on viruses related to COVID-19 and other dangerous viruses, such as Zika.

Some of that research includes identifying host cell factors that viruses depend on in order to replicate. Some of these host functions and pathways appear to be required by many different viruses. Identifying those pathways can be a basis for broad-spectrum antivirals.

Other work focuses on finding the relationship between the virus and human proteins, which are the machines cells use to carry out their functions. Tracking which viral proteins directly work with human proteins in human cells affected by the virus can also provide new ways to disrupt infection.

Ahlquist’s team has been generating super magnified resolution images of a major viral protein complex. That complex is responsible for replicating the RNA genome of a member of the same class of viruses as coronaviruses. Those images provide a window into a whole virus.

Ahlquist said about 90 percent of the conversation on COVID-19 has been about roughly 15 percent of the virus. That’s the piece of the virus that vaccines target. Most of the virus is getting ignored. Looking at what’s ignored could lead to insight into controlling this and other viruses, he said.

“Key breakthroughs often are made not because somebody was targeting an immediate application, but because of general curiosity-driven studies,” he said.

Ahlquist authored a recent opinion editorial in The Hill calling for timely action to cushion the impact of the next pandemic. He suggested allocating resources to priorities such as funding much-needed advances in critical basic research areas and expanding public health infrastructure.

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