When the Ebola epidemic struck West Africa in 2014, drugmakers had been working on a vaccine for the virus for 10 years. But it took more than a year to get it to affected areas.
“That vaccine was shown to be 100 percent effective, suggesting that much of the epidemic could have been prevented,” according to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which formed in 2017 to try to prevent the Ebola failure from happening again. The coronavirus outbreak is the first major test of the organization’s resources.
“We are making very aggressive efforts in the hopes of having a vaccine available—some form of vaccine available, potentially, as early as this fall,” said Richard Hatchett, CEO of the coalition.
The new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, started in China in December and has spread to more than two dozen countries. About 75,000 people have fallen ill, and about 2,100 have died, mostly in China. While some scientists race to develop a vaccine against the virus, others are working on a treatment for those who are already sick.
Scientists in China are testing a repurposed, experimental antiviral to treat coronavirus. Gilead, a U.S. biotechnology company, designed the drug remdesivir to fight similar infectious diseases like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). No experiments have proven remdesivir safely or effectively treats the new coronavirus in humans, but “available data in other coronaviruses give us hope,” according to Gilead.
Doctors administered remdesivir to the first U.S. patient to become ill with the virus after his symptoms worsened during hospitalization. The 35-year-old man showed improvement within two days of starting the drug and suffered no adverse side effects, according to the case study published Jan. 31 in The New England Journal of Medicine. Doctors have since discharged him from the hospital.
Another group of researchers reported earlier this month that remdesivir and the anti-malarial drug chloroquine stopped the spread of the virus among human cells in a lab. Low doses of both drugs worked against the virus without being toxic to the human cells. Chinese health regulators also plan to begin human trials of Kaletra, a drug that combines lopinavir and ritonavir and is used to treat HIV, to fight coronavirus.
Meanwhile, other companies and scientists are working on a vaccine. Keith Chappell at the University of Queensland in Australia is building what he calls a “molecular clamp,” which can boost the immune system’s ability to recognize and destroy coronavirus proteins. He told NPR he aims to have a product ready within 16 weeks of getting the virus’s genetic information, which the Chinese made public in early January.
The Pentagon Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is researching short-term prevention. Using blood samples from coronavirus patients, DARPA scientists are working to isolate the antibodies that fight the virus and inject them into healthcare workers and others in close contact with infected people. Unlike a vaccine, the preventive treatment would only last a few months. Meanwhile, some scientists in China say they found an antibody that binds to the surface of the virus and neutralizes it. They published a preprint of their research on the BioRxiv website on Jan. 28, but it is not peer-reviewed and awaits animal and human testing.