Amidst the coronavirus pandemic that was sparked by the new strain of coronavirus, first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December, companies and academic institutions are fast-tracking efforts to create a vaccine.
The speed with which this is proceeding is in large part due to early Chinese efforts to sequence the genetic material of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
After China shared that sequence in early January, scientists around the world were able to grow the live virus and study how it invades human cells, as biotech companies and universities have begun working on potential vaccines.
As the search for a vaccine continues, the first human trial for a vaccine made in the US is under way, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.
The vaccine, called mRNA-1273, is based on a formulation selected by Moderna Therapeutics and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
The biotech company Moderna, founded in 2010, moved very fast from taking the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus to manufacturing its first batch of vials to begin testing the potential vaccine in US patients.
The company uses a complex gene-based technology that changes how cells function and boasts extensive experience researching vaccines, reported Axios. A nonprofit group, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, helped pay to manufacture the vaccine for the trial.
Moderna built on earlier work on the Mers virus conducted at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, and once Chinese authorities disclosed the genetic code for the new coronavirus it refocused its work toward COVID-19.
The trial will enroll 45 healthy adults ages 18 to 55, with each receiving two shots, 28 days apart.
The main goal of this first set of tests is to find out if the vaccine is safe. If it is, later studies will determine how well it works.
Moderna hopes that the trials could reach Phase 3 by autumn, which could mean a vaccine by this time next year.
Coronaviruses sparked two other recent epidemics: severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in China in 2002-04, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), which started in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
Work began on vaccines at the time, but was shelved when the outbreaks were contained. Another company, Maryland-based Novavax, says it has repurposed those vaccines for Sars-CoV-2, claiming it has several candidates ready to enter human trials this spring, reported the outlet.
A day after the US launched its first clinical trials, China on Tuesday announced at a press conference on Tuesday its scientists were are using five different approaches to develop vaccines for the deadly disease.
“Some vaccines for the novel coronavirus disease [COVID-19] are expected to enter clinical trials as soon as possible in China,” Xinhua news reported.
Noting that that vaccine safety has been a priority in research and development, Wang Junzhi, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, stated that inactivated vaccines, genetic engineering subunit vaccines, adenovirus vector vaccines, nucleic acid vaccines, and vaccines using attenuated influenza virus as vectors were being employed.
Lei Chaozi, an official with the Ministry of Education, said that the flu viral vector-based vaccine is currently under animal tests for safety and efficacy tests and scheduled to apply for the clinical trial by the end of April.
CanSino Biologics Inc said it received Chinese regulatory approval to start human trials of a vaccine co-developed by the Hong Kong-listed company and China's Academy of Military Medical Sciences.
The vaccine, will undergo clinical trials in Wuhan, CanSino Biologics said in a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on 18 March.
In Germany, CureVac, a biopharmaceutical company founded in 2000, has already started its coronavirus vaccine development program, hoping to launch clinical testing by June 2020. The company which is known to have developed novel technology to render vaccines stable without refrigeration, found itself at the heart of a diplomatic spat recently.
CureVac, which has branches in Germany’s Frankfurt and Boston, Massachusetts in the US, hit headlines after a report broke in German weekly Welt am Sonntag, citing sources close to the German government, claiming that US President Donald Trump was attempting to “poach” exclusive rights to the business's coronavirus vaccine.
The news stoked outrage in Germany, with Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn appearing on ZDF program Berlin Direkt on Sunday night to say that in the case of any successful trials, the vaccine would be made available to everyone who needs it.
CureVac majority owner Dietmar Hopp sought to allay concerns on 16 March, assuring that the business would stay in Germany, while seeming to confirm that Donald Trump had sought exclusivity rights.
While there was no official US response to the reports, in a Twitter statement on 16 March CureVac dismissed allegations made in the press, adding it “had not received an offer before, during and since the Task Force meeting in the White House.”
Russian scientists have also begun to test vaccine prototypes for the new coronavirus.
Ilnaz Imatdinov, a laboratory chief at state biotech Vector Institute in Siberia, told the Vesti Novosibirsk television channel on Monday:
“The prototypes have been created. We are starting laboratory testing on animals, to ensure effectiveness and safety."
A prototype of a coronavirus vaccine can be created in three months in Russia, said Professor Mikhail Kirpichnikov, Head of the Biological Engineering Department at the Faculty of Biology of Moscow State University, quoted by Izvestia newspaper.
Meanwhile, Olga Karpova, head of the Department of Virology at Lomonosov Moscow State University, explained that the university had first launched work back in 2010 on a novel technology for creating spherical particles that can become a carrier for antigens of any viruses, including coronavirus infection.
The scientists were able to obtain spherical particles from a plant virus that is not contagious to humans, which is so glued with individual proteins from SARS-CoV-2 (that causes COVID-19) that it becomes like two drops of water similar to the pathogen itself.
The manufacturing process of the drug would potentially be both simple and entailing low costs.
According to Professor Kirpichnikov, an order and sufficient funding would be required for the rapid development of a universal vaccine on the basis of the research.
Other companies working on potential vaccines are GlaxoSmithKline Plc, which said last month it was working with China-based Clover Biopharmaceuticals on an experimental vaccine, and US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, collaborating with Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson, according to Bloomberg.
Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co. also licensed a vaccine that’s now being developed at the pre-clinical stage by Mainz, Germany-based BioNTech SE.
Taking a vaccine to regulatory approval typically takes a decade or more, claim health experts state, while that is followed by another succession of challenges.
An approved vaccine would require production capacities that many organisations in the race to find a cure for Covid-19 do not possess.
“Getting a vaccine that’s proven to be safe and effective in humans takes one at best about a third of the way to what’s needed for a global immunisation programme,” Jonathan Quick of Duke University in North Carolina was quoted by The Guardian as saying.
The global health expert added:
“Virus biology and vaccines technology could be the limiting factors, but politics and economics are far more likely to be the barrier to immunisation.”
China’s Wuhan first became the epicenter for the pandemic that has spread to all corners of the planet, infecting more than 203 529 people and killing more than 8,205.
The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a pandemic.