Scientists at Southwest Research Institute are using a virtual screening tool to identify drugs that may be used to treat patients who contract the novel coronavirus.

A screening tool called Rhodium recently evaluated the effectiveness of 2 million drugs by analyzing how protein structures in the virus might bind with drug compounds.

So far, the tool has led researchers to identify 10 drugs that could potentially be effective at slowing or preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) President Adam Hamilton said Wednesday.

“We’re working as fast as we can now internally – [and] also with some of our San Antonio partners – to see if we can actually demonstrate that these drugs are effective when used to prevent or help minimize the impact of coronavirus on people,” Hamilton said.

The novel coronavirus has now killed more than 2,000 people, all but six of them in mainland China.

Joint Base San Antono-Lackland is housing more than 200 quarantined people on base, 151 of whom arrived via charter flights on Monday from Japan following a U.S. repatriation effort that evacuated 338 Americans from the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship.

San Antonio’s first group of evacuees were brought to the local military base from China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, with one person testing positive for the virus – the 15th diagnosis in the U.S.

The SwRI team will now team up with local research partners, including the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, for the next phase of studies and drug development, according to a statement issued by SwRI.

The Rhodium software can scan up to 250,000 drug compounds per day, following updates made to the technology by the SwRI research team. A 3D model of the coronavirus was used to evaluate potential drugs from a database of compounds, the statement said.

Rhodium performs a 3D analysis to predict how a compound will interact with a protein structure, and then ranks results.

“Virtual screening can rapidly increase the pace of drug discovery, especially in pandemic situations,” said Dr. Shawn Blumberg, an SwRI research scientist.

The virtual screening process saves research labs time in the early stages of drug development by bringing forward a short list of potentially effective candidates by quickly weeding out those that would have no impact, SwRI officials stated.

The institute joins Xenex in local companies fighting the novel coronavirus.

SwRI developed Rhodium through joint, internally funded research with chemical engineers and computer scientists.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...