Scientists and researchers worldwide have joined the fight against the fast-spreading coronavirus. The task? Find an effective vaccine — and quickly.
The outbreak, which began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, as of Monday had infected more than 2,000 people in China and killed 76. Cases have also been confirmed in the United States, Thailand, Japan and South Korea. Two cases recently appeared in Canada.
While there is a test to identify the virus, there is currently no vaccine to prevent an infection or a treatment for those infected.
Can a vaccine be created?
It is technically possible to create a vaccine against this new strain, experts say. Scientists are ahead of the game this time.
Mere weeks after the first unusual illnesses were reported, researchers in China were able to map the genetic code of the virus and share it with health authorities around the world, effectively putting the vaccine-making wheels in motion.
During the 2003 SARS outbreak, it took American scientists 20 months to go from identifying the genetic code to the first phase of human trials. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) developed a potential vaccine candidate and although it proved safe in preliminary tests, it never got any further because, at that point, the outbreak was under control.
Now, scientists in China, the U.S., Canada and Australia are working on developing and testing vaccines to stop the new strain from spreading any further.
Who is developing a vaccine?
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global non-profit organization that helps fund the development of new vaccines, has set a goal to have a vaccine ready for human testing in just 16 weeks. The process typically takes years.
The CEPI has injected a total of $12.5 million into three companies to start development on 2019-nCoV vaccines.
A team of scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia is among those.
The researchers are working on what they describe as a “molecular clamp” vaccine approach, which has reportedly already shown promising results in lab tests on other viruses such as Ebola and the strain of coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a cousin of the virus proliferating in China.
Two pharmaceutical companies — Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Moderna Therapeutics — also received millions in funding from the CEPI to get a vaccine ready.
Several other universities, pharmaceuticals and biotech companies around the world have also announced plans to develop a vaccine.
Vaccine company Novavax, which already has a vaccine to fight MERS in development, has a dedicated team working to identify a treatment.
And Gilead Sciences Inc., the biopharmaceutical company that developed an experimental Ebola drug, is looking into whether it can use the treatment to combat the new coronavirus.
Canada is also among those researching ways to deal with the new viral illness.
A special lab at the University of Saskatchewan’s International Vaccine Centre, which has previously created successful vaccines for coronavirus strains linked to farm animals, is working on developing a vaccine. The lab was granted permission by the Public Health Agency of Canada to conduct tests, which researchers hope to try on animals in six to eight weeks.
How long will it take?
It’s hard to say.
Anthony Fauci, the director of NIH’s National Institutes of the Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which also has a dedicated team working to develop a vaccine, told the Washington Post that he is “reasonably confident” that a safety study on humans could begin within three months.
Three months from gene sequence to initial human testing would be the fastest the NIH has ever gotten such a vaccine in development, he told Reuters.
But, that doesn’t mean the vaccine would be ready for real-world use.
To get an effective treatment off the ground, there is an “extensive” timeline involved, according to the president of research and development at Novavax.
It could still be up to a year before the vaccine is ready for humans and brought to the market.
“With the emerging infectious disease pathogens, there are wise shortcuts that can be taken,” Greg Glenn told Yahoo Finance. “The first vaccine for any of these emerging disease vaccines like SARS, Ebola, pandemic flu, are licensed in a four-year period.”
He said he was optimistic and added that the development of a vaccine for this new coronavirus strain would be a “big advance for public health.”
— With files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and Reuters