More than 5,000,000 people have been infected with the new Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and there have been confirmed cases reported in almost every country in the world. Major outbreaks have occurred in the US, China, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Germany, France, Switzerland and the UK, with other countries reporting large numbers of new cases daily.
The number of cases has far eclipsed the number of people affected by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003. To date, most of the 200,000 deaths have been recorded in Italy, Spain, China, the US, France and Iran. Dozens more countries have also seen fatalities, prompting dozens of countries to close schools and limit public gatherings. Authorities around the world are working to contain the spread by reducing public gatherings, closing businesses and limiting public transport.
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.
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
Researchers from around the world are meeting at @WHO for a research & innovation forum on #COVID19. The first vaccine could be ready in 18 months, In the meantime, there's a lot we can do to prevent transmission and prepare for any further spread.https://t.co/7uXYj2KxF3
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) February 11, 2020
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.