Wanted: Coronavirus vaccines

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

February 24th, 2020

Gary Finnegan

‘The outbreak of a new Coronavirus has sparked a flurry of research, but any new vaccine will take at least a year ’

More than 85,000 people in China have been infected with a new Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and there have been confirmed cases reported across Asia as well as in in Germany, France, the US and Australia.

The number of cases remains lower than for seasonal influenza but has eclipsed the number of people affected by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003. To date, most of the 3,000 deaths have been recorded in China where authorities are working to contain the spread by reducing public gatherings and limiting public transport. Deaths have also been recorded in Italy, Iran, South Korea, Japan, France and the Philippines.

The new virus, also called Covid-19, has sparked global concern and reignited the search for a vaccine for viruses of this kind. While no vaccine is available for coronaviruses, which include SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), some experts say research on SARS and MERS may accelerate the development of a vaccine for 2019-nCoV.

However, it remains unlikely that any new vaccine could be ready for widespread human use this year.

Wuhan, China: a major city of 11 million people which has become the epicentre of a new Coronavirus outbreak

Investment in research has increased in recent weeks with public and private funds helping to restart stalled programmes and launch new ones. China’s richest man, Jack Ma, has pledged 100 million yuan (€13 million) to support ‘prevention and treatment’ measures. Other Chinese companies have also promised financial support, including Huawei, Baidu and the company that controls the TikTok social media platform.

Vaccine manufacturers in Europe and the US are stepping up their efforts, building on their experience of rapidly developing Ebola vaccines. Novartis and Johnson & Johnson have announced that they are working on vaccines, while Sanofi, MSD and others are keeping a watching brief.

Global partnership

The Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has announced support for three vaccine research projects with the University of Queensland, Inovio and a new partnership between Moderna Inc. and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

‘Given the rapid global spread of the nCoV-2019 virus the world needs to act quickly and in unity to tackle this disease,’ said Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI. ‘Our intention is to leverage our work on the MERS coronavirus and rapid response platforms to speed up vaccine development.’

He said that while there are no guarantees of success, it was hoped that clinical testing could begin in 16 weeks. That would be the beginning of a process that can take years but will be accelerated given the urgency around containing coronavirus. While there is currently strong demand for a new vaccine, it is likely to be at least 2021 before any vaccine is available.

No quick fix

Industry experts say vaccine development typically takes 10 years and can be considerably longer for complex diseases such as dengue fever or malaria. However, new technologies – such as mRNA platforms – could accelerate the time it takes to begin clinical trials. Nonetheless, trials could still take between two or three years, even if regulatory approval is fast-tracked.

While manufacturers and regulators are mindful of the strong demand for a Coronavirus vaccine, there is little appetite to compromise on quality and safety. Confidence in any new vaccines – and the potential to impact confidence in vaccines more generally – will be essential to public health in the longer term.

Meanwhile, companies are mobilising tools ranging from diagnostics and biomarkers to new and existing therapies which could be used to treat patients with coronavirus. EFPIA, the trade association representing pharmaceutical companies in Europe, is engaging with the Innovative Medicines Initiative on collaborative research programmes that could fast-track the development of new diagnostics and treatments. A similar effort helped to advance the global response to the Ebola crisis. 

EU mobilises €10m for Coronavirus R&D

A €10 million emergency research fund will be mobilised to help fight the novel Coronavirus epidemic. The funds will come from the EU’s Horizon 2020 and will support clinical management of patients, as well as outbreak preparedness projects.

 "We are working to mitigate the consequences of a potential larger spread of the Coronavirus outbreak in the EU. Thanks to emergency research funding from Horizon 2020, we will know more about the disease.

‘I am proud that following the progress made during the last years, our supercomputer centres stand ready to help researchers in their work to develop new treatment and vaccines,’ said Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth.

‘We need to know more about the virus to better target our prevention measures and to ensure better care for our citizens – this is precisely the aim of the Horizon 2020 emergency research funding announced today.’

The funding pot is expected to back between two and four research projects and applicants have until 12 February to respond to the call for tender.


Track the latest number of Coronavirus cases and deaths