OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) — A molecule designed by a team of scientists led by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory could change how COVID infections are treated.

The new molecule targets PLPro, which scientists say helps the coronavirus multiply.

“We’re attacking the virus from a different front, which is a good strategy in infectious disease research,” said Jerry Parks, who led the project and leads the Molecular Biophysics group at ORNL.

A press release claims that by using mammalian cells, the team showed that the inhibitor molecule limits the replication of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus strain as well as the Delta and Omicron variants.

The research is featured in Nature Communications.

The strategy of identifying a molecule, understanding how it binds to a target, and modifying it to make it more effective could be applied to understanding and combating future viruses, the scientists note in a press release.

“We took an existing compound and made it more potent by designing it to form a new chemical bond with PLpro,” said ORNL chemist and lead author Brian Sanders. “Our efforts are now to build on what we have developed to make better compounds that could one day be taken as a pill.”

The constant need to discover antiviral drugs was one of the main motivators for the project, Parks said.