As coronavirus spreads, researchers race to develop a vaccine

Researchers hope to produce a vaccine ready for clinical trials in mere months, significantly trimming a process that can take up to a decade.

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By Denise Chow

Less than two weeks after a new coronavirus was first reported in China, scientists published a dizzying string of more than 34,000 letters: the molecular blueprint of the respiratory illness.

Scientists around the world immediately seized on those letters, the virus' sequenced genome, in an effort to create a vaccine that could help halt the spreading pathogen. Researchers hope to produce a vaccine ready for clinical trials in mere months, significantly trimming a process that, in some cases, can take up to a decade.

"Basically, we've gotten a lot better at doing this," Alex Greninger, a virologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said of genome sequencing efforts.

Referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said: "The CDC already had a diagnostic test ready by the time the first patient that they tested came in. That's amazing, and it's really thanks to the sharing of that initial genome."

The race is on for scientists to develop responses to the new coronavirus pathogen. As of Wednesday, the virus had sickened more than 7,700 people and killed 170. Cases of the virus have been reported in 14 countries outside China, including five confirmed cases in the U.S.

Scientists and research organizations around the world sprang into action after the first coronavirus case in the Chinese city of Wuhan was reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31. They say efforts to develop vaccines for previous coronavirus outbreaks, combined with new technologies, are shortening what remains a long and arduous process.

Scientists at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, have produced a lab-grown version of the new coronavirus that they say could help speed the development of a vaccine and a diagnostic test. And Johnson & Johnson announced Wednesday that it would use the same technologies from its lab's development of an experimental Ebola vaccine to produce vaccine candidates.

Work on a vaccine is also underway at the National Institutes of Health. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the first phase of clinical trials could begin within three months. A consortium of scientists in the U.S. and Canada, led by Karla Satchell of Northwestern University, is also sifting through the virus' genetic code for clues to how to stop it from spreading.

On Jan. 23, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an organization founded in 2016 to foster the development of new vaccines for emerging infectious diseases, announced that it was funding three separate approaches to develop vaccines against the coronavirus.

The coalition partnered with two biotech companies — Inovio of Pennsylvania and Moderna Inc. of Massachusetts — and the University of Queensland in Australia with the aim of advancing potential vaccines to clinical trials in about four months.

"There are no guarantees of success, but we hope this work could provide a significant and important step forward in developing a vaccine for this disease," Richard Hatchett, the coalition's chief executive, said in a statement.

The coalition is emphasizing speed. Advances in genetic technologies and widespread cooperation among scientists around the world are enabling labs to analyze the virus nearly in real time.

In 2003, an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, a type of coronavirus that closely resembles the Wuhan variant, spread to more than two dozen countries and killed 774 people. At the time, it took scientists in the U.S. 20 months to advance from sequencing the virus' genome to human trials of potential vaccines.

Hatchett hopes to cut that to 16 weeks by investing in technologies to produce and test vaccines more quickly and by applying research conducted on other coronaviruses that are thought to be closely related to the Wuhan pathogen.

Novavax, a biotech company with headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is also banking on applying lessons learned from previous vaccine development programs. The company has worked on vaccines for the flu, in addition to pandemic-level outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, another type of coronavirus that was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Gregory Glenn, head of research and development at Novavax, said the company's previous work on coronaviruses could help speed development of a vaccine.

"We think we can get to a vaccine fairly quickly, so we felt like we had no choice," he said.

For now, Novavax is investing internally in the research, but Glenn said the company eventually would need outside funding to continue through the various testing phases. Still, he thinks Novavax could mass produce millions of doses in a year if one of its experimental vaccines showed success in clinical trials.

But millions of doses would be insufficient to protect people in even just one country, particularly as officials are bracing for the virus to continue spreading.

Health workers move a patient to a hospital after he was cleared of being infected with Ebola at a Doctors Without Borders treatment center in Butembo, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Nov. 4, 2018.John Wessels / AFP - Getty Images file

Even the most state-of-the-art vaccine development can be a long and expensive process. If researchers can get an experimental vaccine to clinical trials in four months — a feat in and of itself — it would still most likely take at least a year before the vaccine is commercially available.

So while vaccines are an extremely important way to prevent infectious diseases, they are not necessarily the most practical solution during an outbreak, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"Every time we get an outbreak, there's an outpouring of voices saying we're going to have a vaccine," he said. "I wish we had these vaccines, too, but transferring the Grand Canyon to the state of New York is probably more practical at this point."

Osterholm said the approval process for new vaccines is lengthy and that it's more often the case that outbreaks have already receded by the time doses are commercially manufactured and available.

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The SARS vaccines developed by Novavax, for example, were never mass produced because public health officials were able to contain the virus. The outbreak ended after about six months, and according to the CDC, there have been no known transmissions since July 2003.

And even though work on an Ebola vaccine has been in the works for decades, efforts were ramped up after a severe outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Still, it wasn't until last month that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first Ebola vaccine.

But Glenn said there is still value in investing in vaccine development early on during outbreaks, especially as technologies improve and scientists are able to be more agile with this type of research.

"We live in a time when there are so many tools available," he said. "It has to be possible that we'll crunch that time down from recognizing a novel virus to having a new vaccine. Even just two years from now, we should have this conversation again and see how we did."