The COVID-19 Pandemic


With the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the Helmholtz Institute Würzburg (HIRI) immediately began researching the process of infection and disease development. HIRI scientists are looking for potential weaknesses where, either infection can be prevented or stopped at an early stage. Their ultimate goal is to develop drugs for this and future pandemics.


Recent Findings

Decoding SARS-CoV-2

Researchers from the Helmholtz Institute Würzburg unveiled the interplay of RNA structures during the translation of the SARS-CoV-2 genome.

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Why patients require prolonged ventilation


The majority of patients with severe COVID-19 develop unusually pronounced scarring of the lungs. This was the conclusion of a study conducted by a nationwide research network with HIRI participation. Writing in Cell, the scientists report that macrophages – immune cells which engulf and digest foreign substances – play a central role in this regard.

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Protein ZAP inhibits multiplication of SARS-CoV-2 by 20-fold

Scientists at the Würzburg Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) and the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig demonstrate for the first time how ZAP, a protein of the human immune defense system, inhibits the replication mechanism of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and can reduce the viral load by 20-fold.

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The novel coronavirus invades an organism - from that moment on the organism serves as a "host". The virus then uses the host organism to multiply and causes the symptoms of COVID-19 (including fever, cough, exhaustion). In order to understand these processes, research at HIRI, together with German and international cooperation partners, uses the latest technologies.

Firstly, the researchers look at how the novel coronavirus multiplies in the host. To do this, SARS-CoV-2 uses a strategy called "ribosomal frameshifting". This method allows the virus, with its limited set of genetic information, to produce a much larger number of protein building blocks and thus establish itself and multiply in host cells. HIRI scientist Neva Caliskan and her research group are working hard to identify the key interaction partners during replication.

HIRI group leader Emmanuel Saliba studies cells at an individual level. With the technology of "single-cell RNA sequencing", the cell infection process of an infected person can be traced in unprecedentedly high resolution. One step at a time, a series of maps is being created. With these maps, it is possible to observe how different RNAs are created, used and degraded in a single cell at a specific time.    

The research groups around Helmholtz junior researchers Mathias Munschauer and Redmond Smyth want to find out which factors lead to the reproduction of the virus in the host. In a holistic approach, they identify the interaction partners of the virus in the host. In this way, it can be determined which host factors are essential for the reproduction of the virus.

Other research groups at HIRI are deciphering the interface between Sars-CoV-2 and its host. They contribute their individual expertise to the joint research work.


Scientific publications on SARS-CoV-2

Our research

Media coverage

Researchers at the HIRI are highly demanded interview partners on the topic of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and provide assessments of the situation. Here you can find selected articles:

Further information on SARS-CoV-2 and the research efforts undertaken by our parent center, the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research can be found here. 


"We need to fully understand the course of the infection as well as the ensuing host response to help healthcare professionals to treat high-risk patients. The analysis of virus-host interactions on the single-cell level could be key, it would allow us to pinpoint molecular factors and cellular pathways for prioritizing drug targets."

Jörg Vogel, in his LifeTime COVID-19 interview read more

More information

Find out what else is happening at HIRI