More than 500 scientists from around the world have formed a coalition to share data on the novel coronavirus, based on techniques which examine people’s blood.


The COVID-19 Mass Spectrometry Coalition (COVID-19-MSC) is made up of leading experts who will work together to look at the ways the virus is present in patients’ blood and examine how it is structured.

The aim is to refine testing approaches, look at treatment options, and determine isolation requirements.

What is mass spectrometry?

Mass spectrometry is a technique used by scientists to measure and analyse molecules.

When scientists put a sample through a mass spectrometer, they can find out the ratio of mass to electric charge of the component molecules in the sample.

The COVID-19-MSC is using the technology to measure the molecules that change in a patient’s blood as the infection takes hold. It can be used to find out what the molecules are, and how many of them there are.

What could the COVID-19-MSC project reveal?

The coalition, announced in The Lancet, and coordinated by the University of Manchester, is looking for biomarkers in the patient's blood that will determine how a given individual will respond to the virus.

This information would allow hospital labs to predict the outcome of the disease and to target treatment accordingly.

Mass spectrometry will also help develop effective treatments by targeted studies that measure the decrease in these markers.

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“Mass spectrometry is a powerful analytical tool that can be applied in many important ways to help address the COVID-19 pandemic," said Liverpool Professor of Biological Mass Spectrometry, Claire Eyers.

"Our international collaborative endeavour will leverage our diverse technological expertise to respond to current unmet needs in understanding and addressing COVID-19 biology."

Professor Perdita Barran, director of the Michael Barber Centre for Collaborative Mass Spectrometry, at the University of Manchester, said: “By cooperating in this way, the scientists working in the coalition will have access to many more sources of data from around the world.


“We will be pooling our expertise and we believe we will be able to work much faster and have an impact on a range of priorities; from testing, to treatment and vaccination.”

How do scientists develop vaccines for new viruses?

Vaccines work by fooling our bodies into thinking that we’ve been infected by a virus. Our body mounts an immune response, and builds a memory of that virus which will enable us to fight it in the future.

Viruses and the immune system interact in complex ways, so there are many different approaches to developing an effective vaccine. The two most common types are inactivated vaccines (which use harmless viruses that have been ‘killed’, but which still activate the immune system), and attenuated vaccines (which use live viruses that have been modified so that they trigger an immune response without causing us harm).

A more recent development is recombinant vaccines, which involve genetically engineering a less harmful virus so that it includes a small part of the target virus. Our body launches an immune response to the carrier virus, but also to the target virus.

Over the past few years, this approach has been used to develop a vaccine (called rVSV-ZEBOV) against the Ebola virus. It consists of a vesicular stomatitis animal virus (which causes flu-like symptoms in humans), engineered to have an outer protein of the Zaire strain of Ebola.

Vaccines go through a huge amount of testing to check that they are safe and effective, whether there are any side effects, and what dosage levels are suitable. It usually takes years before a vaccine is commercially available.

Sometimes this is too long, and the new Ebola vaccine is being administered under ‘compassionate use’ terms: it has yet to complete all its formal testing and paperwork, but has been shown to be safe and effective. Something similar may be possible if one of the many groups around the world working on a vaccine for the new strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is successful.

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Amy ArthurEditorial Assistant, BBC Science Focus

Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.