WASHINGTON – The flu-like virus that exploded from China has researchers worldwide once again scrambling to find a vaccine against a surprise health threat, with no guarantee one will arrive in time.
Just days after Chinese scientists shared the genetic map of the culprit coronavirus, researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health had engineered a possible key ingredient for a vaccine they hope to begin testing by April.
Scientists from Australia to France, along with a list of biotech and vaccine companies, jumped in the race, pursuing different types of inoculations.
And Texas researchers froze an experimental vaccine developed too late to fight an earlier coronavirus – SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome – but are pushing U.S. and Chinese authorities to give it a try this time around. Because the new virus is a close cousin of SARS, it just might protect, said Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital.
All that work is coming at lightning speed compared to past outbreaks. Yet many experts agree it still may take a year – if every step along the way goes well – for any vaccine to be ready for widespread use. That's if it's even needed by then.
Globally, more than 28,000 people are infected and the death toll climbed past 560. The overwhelming majority are in China, but more than 200 people with the illness have been reported in over two dozen other countries.
For now, health officials are isolating the sick to fight spread of the virus, which causes fever, cough and in severe cases pneumonia. With no specific treatment, some doctors also are experimenting with antiviral medicines developed for other conditions.
“Ours is already manufactured and could take off pretty quickly,” said Hotez, who created the earlier SARS vaccine with Texas Children's colleague Maria Elena Bottazzi. But “there's still no road map for what you do to make a vaccine in the midst of a devastating public health outbreak.”
NIH specialists say rather than chasing outbreaks, it's time to pursue prototype vaccine designs that could work for entire virus families, ready to be pulled off the shelf at the first sign of a new disease.
“We have the technology now. It's feasible from an engineering and biological standpoint,” said Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Vaccine Research Center. Without that step, “we're going to be at risk for new pandemics.”
Doctor who warned public dies
BEIJING – A Chinese doctor who got in trouble with authorities in the communist country for sounding an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak died Friday after coming down with the illness.
The Wuhan Central Hospital said on its social media account that Dr. Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, was “unfortunately infected during the fight against the pneumonia epidemic of the new coronavirus infection.”
According to the New York Times, Wuhan health officials summoned Li in the middle of the night to explain why he shared the information, and police later forced him to sign a statement admitting to “illegal behavior.”