Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 September 2020

Coronavirus: how close are scientists to a vaccine?

Safety regulations mean any vaccine for the disease is at least a year away, but progress is being made

Scientists around the world are using their expertise to try to create a vaccine for the coronavirus, which has infected more than 70,000 people and spread to almost 30 countries over the course of just two months.

Researchers have been able to act so quickly due to open sharing of information by the Chinese, whose country the disease originated in.

“The scientists in Wuhan had a virus sequence by the next week that they shared with the international community, which was huge and really unprecedented," said Dr Angela Rasmussen, a biologist at Columbia University in New York.

“We've never had access to the data for an emerging virus that was completely unknown to us before. That sort of thing is instrumental in developing tests.”

The most publicised path to a vaccine for coronavirus has been the efforts of biotech company Moderna. Based in Boston, the team announced on Monday it had shipped an experimental vaccine to US government researchers – just six weeks after the disease was confirmed in Wuhan.

Although a positive first step, the Moderna vaccine is far from the end of the story. Initial trials of the mRNA-1273 vaccine may begin in April, but full safety testing will last more than a year.

“That one-year timeline would be the world's indoor record of ever getting a vaccine out, at least to be able to early deploy,” Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CBS programme Face The Nation.

“You can't do any better than that. If you go any faster, you'll be cutting dangerous corners.”

Big pharma is also playing its part, although the lack of revenue generated by vaccines does not drive companies to commit their best resources to such a project.

French drugmaker Sanofi said on Tuesday it will team up with a US agency to develop a vaccine.

Oslo-based CEPI, started in 2017, has joined forces with partners including Moderna to accelerate the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine using new approaches.

Some companies aim to have a vaccine available within 12 to 18 months.

Previous success stories of vaccination creation and deployment have been pharmaceutical company Merck’s Ebola vaccine, Ervebo, which was deployed most recently in an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The discovery was made possible by an unprecedented effort by a World Health Organisation road map for collaboration which saw the African Vaccines Regulatory Forum, African governments, the European Medicines Agency, and Merck work together to guide the vaccine through regulatory processes.

“While we are far from finished in the Ebola fight, this milestone shows what can be done when we work together to address the most challenging diseases that threaten people and communities,” Merck CEO Kenneth C Frazier said in February.

Medical teams in Japan and China are attempting an even more ambitious project – finding a cure for the disease.

The government is making "preparations so that clinical trials using HIV medication on the novel coronavirus can start as soon as possible," Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told a briefing, but added he could not say how long it might take to approve a drug's use.

In Shanghai’s Public Health Clinical Centre, doctors are employing a patchwork of coronavirus treatments including anti-viral medications, corticosteroids, blood plasma from recovered patients and traditional Chinese medicine, AFP reported.

Dr Rasmussen says another important element is correct testing.

“One thing that would be really helpful is if we have some kind of prognostic test that not only would determine that you're infected with a virus but what your outcome is likely to be,” she said.

“Then we could begin customising treatments for patients. So if we can predict early on that this person is not going to get very sick we can have them self-quarantine, recover at home. But if we know early that this person is likely to get very sick, we can begin treating them early and maybe use a different treatment strategy that would hopefully mitigate the severity of their disease.”

Updated: April 6, 2020 10:36 PM

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