There was no vaccine for Sars or Mers. Will there be one for the new coronavirus?

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Source : SCMP

Seventeen years after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak and seven years since the first Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) case, there is still no coronavirus vaccine despite dozens of attempts to develop them.

As research institutes and companies around the world race to find potential vaccines for a new coronavirus strain that has infected nearly 80,000 people and claimed more than 2,000 lives, the question is, will this time be different?

Communicable disease outbreaks are handled by stopping transmission and with medicines and vaccines, but developing those vaccines takes time as they have to go through trials to ensure they are safe and effective.

They are also costly. According to Michael Osterholm, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, it can cost as much as US$1 billion to develop, licence and manufacture a vaccine from scratch – including building a facility to produce it in.

The new coronavirus strain originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December and causes a disease known as Covid-19. Two previous coronavirus outbreaks – Sars and Mers – also had scientists trying to find vaccines.

For Sars in 2003, it took four months before the genome sequence of the coronavirus was available to develop antigens that could be used for animal and cell culture trials.

The first human trial of a possible Sars vaccine was conducted in Beijing in December 2004, but by that time the epidemic was over, and research into other diseases was given priority so it was shelved.

But the initial stage of the process has moved much faster for the new coronavirus than it did for Sars and Mers. Chinese researchers quickly isolated the strain and the genome sequence was released to the scientific community on January 10. That was well before the Chinese government announced the virus could be transmitted between humans, on January 21.

Funding also appears to be available, at least at this stage. With Beijing under huge pressure to control the epidemic that has stalled the economy for weeks, it has been willing to mobilise any resources it has for scientific research, and a special task force has been set up to coordinate efforts.

“Since the task force was set up, vaccine development has been a priority and we have pulled together all the best units in the country to work towards a breakthrough and to expedite the development of a vaccine,” Zhang Xinmin, director of the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development under the Ministry of Science and Technology, told the media on February 15.

Outside China, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – a group backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and investments from various countries to speed up vaccine development – is funding institutes and companies including US firm Inovio Pharmaceuticals, a joint project by US firm Moderna and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the University of Queensland.

CEPI wants to see if new platform technologies – which allow vaccines for different viruses to be developed in the same platform after some adjustments – can be applied to vaccine development for the new coronavirus, reducing the production time. The concept is similar to the one used in developing new seasonal influenza vaccines.


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