Coronavirus outbreak sparks international collaboration
The 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) or Wuhan coronavirus is continuing to spread across all regions, igniting a global race to contain the virus which has, as of now, infected 7,814 patients and caused 170 fatalities.
Countries all over the world are now evacuating their own citizens from Wuhan and bringing them home while tightening transboundary security to control the movement of China citizens.
The world’s leading universities, pharmaceutical companies and international organisations are also joining forces to accelerate the process of developing effective vaccines to combat 2019-nCoV.
The process is a tedious one and involves multiple clinical tests before the vaccine can be introduced into the general market.
However, with the development of new and advanced medical technology, it is likely that the time taken to develop a potent vaccine will be significantly reduced.
On January 10, Chinese government scientists released the genetic makeup of the 2019-nCoV virus on a public database.
This was done upon the request by the US National Institutes of Health Deputy Director of the Vaccine Research Center Dr Barney Graham so that his team and others around the world could begin developing potential vaccines.
Scientists under the NIH compared the genetic sequence with information already gathered from previous viral outbreaks such as SARS and MERS.
The research team successfully adapted the genetic code of the novel coronavirus to a template created from a SARS virus that was used to develop an experimental vaccine during the previous 2003 outbreak.
This will hopefully speed up the process for further vaccine development and has also been shared with pharmaceutical organisation Moderna to develop their own potential vaccine.
Thanks to the availability of the genetic code of the 2019-nCoV virus, world-leading universities and research centres are now using it to develop their own vaccine research with the support of funding from governmental and international organisations.
In Canada, for instance, the University of Saskatchewan received permission from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to commence research on a potential vaccine.
This research initiative will be handled by the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organisation-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) and will potentially have the first vaccine candidates ready for testing in an animal model in six to eight weeks.
“We are hoping to have positive results in a few months,” said VIDO-InterVac director Dr Volker Gerdts.
“We are currently discussing next steps with PHAC and how VIDO-InterVac can assist the country in preparing for the disease.”
“Within hours we were given permission to handle the virus. I have never seen such speed before, and it shows how institutions can and should work together,” added Gerdts.
VIDO-InterVac is currently trying to get the virus from China or the US for testing, and, in case they are unable to, they have also ordered synthetic gene fragments to assemble a replica of the virus in the lab according to the genetic makeup.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity which is a joint effort between the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne hospital have successfully grown the coronavirus from a patient sample.
Marking the first time the virus has been grown outside of China, this proves to be a breakthrough in research to enable a more accurate investigation and diagnosis of the virus.
“Chinese officials released the genome sequence of this novel coronavirus, which is helpful for diagnosis, however, having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities – it will be a game-changer for diagnosis,” said Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity Virus Identification Laboratory Head Dr Julian Druce.
“The virus will be used as positive control material for the Australian network of public health laboratories, and also shipped to expert laboratories working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Europe.”
This artificially grown virus will be used to generate an antibody test which allows the detection of the virus in patients who haven’t displayed symptoms.
“An antibody test will enable us to retrospectively test suspected patients so we can gather a more accurate picture of how widespread the virus is, and consequently, among other things, the true mortality rate,” said Doherty Institute Deputy Director Dr Mike Catton.
“It will also assist in the assessment of the effectiveness of trial vaccines,” he added.
“We’ve planned for an incident like this for many, many years and that’s really why we were able to get an answer so quickly.”
To further accelerate the worldwide fight against this outbreak, China has recently agreed to have the World Health Organization send international experts to further investigate the coronavirus and get a clearer picture of the situation which can be used to advise other nations.
The World Health Organization held an Emergency Committee meeting yesterday in Geneva to decide if the outbreak constitutes as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and to establish further recommendations to manage the situation.