Commentary: When can we expect a vaccine for the Wuhan virus?
It will take some time to at least establish safety standards, as well as for animal and human trials to complete, say two experts.
ANN ARBOR, Michigan: Work has begun at multiple organisations, including the United States’ National Institutes of Health, to develop a vaccine for the Wuhan coronavirus, known among scientists as 2019-nCoV.
Scientists are just getting started, but their vaccine development strategy will benefit both from work that has been done on closely related viruses, as well as advances that have been made in vaccine technologies.
For instance, nucleic acid vaccines, which are DNA- and RNA-based vaccines, can produce the vaccine antigen in the patient’s own body.
DEVELOPING VACCINES FOR VIRUSES
While scientists have not been working on a vaccine for the Wuhan coronavirus prior to the outbreak, work has been ongoing for other closely related coronaviruses that have caused severe disease in humans, namely MERS and SARS.
Scientists had not been concerned about this particular strain, as they did not know that it existed and could cause disease in humans until the outbreak.
Work on vaccines for severe coronaviruses has historically begun once the viruses start infecting humans.
READ: Commentary: SARS was scary, but the experience was invaluable in shaping our Wuhan virus response
Developing a vaccine involves designing the vaccine constructs – for example, producing the right target antigens, viral proteins that are targeted by the immune system, followed by testing in animal models to show that they are protective and safe.
Once safety and efficacy are established, vaccines can advance into clinical trials in humans. If the vaccines induce the expected immune response and protection and are found safe, they can be mass produced for vaccination of the population.
WHAT MORE NEEDED TO DEVELOP A VACCINE
Currently, we lack virus isolates – or samples of the virus – to test the vaccines against. We also lack antibodies to make sure the vaccine is in good shape.
We need the virus in order to test if the immune response induced by the vaccine works.
We would also have to establish what animals to test the vaccine on. That potentially could include mice and nonhuman primates. Vaccine development will also likely take months.
DEALING WITH FUTURE OUTBREAKS
We expect that these types of outbreaks will occur for the foreseeable future in irregular intervals.
To try to prevent large outbreaks and pandemics, we need to improve surveillance in both humans and animals worldwide as well as invest in risk assessment, allowing scientists to evaluate the potential threat of detected viruses.
Given that this is the third major outbreak of a new coronavirus that we have had in the past two decades and the severity of the resulting diseases such as MERS and SARS, we should consider investing in the development of a vaccine that would be broadly protective against these viruses.
We believe that global action is needed to invest in novel vaccine approaches that can be employed quickly whenever a new virus like the current coronavirus – and also viruses similar to Zika, Ebola or influenza – emerges.
Currently, responses to emerging pathogens are mostly reactive, meaning they start after the outbreak happens. We need a more proactive approach supported by continuous funding.
Aubree Gordon is Professor of Public Health at the University of Michigan. Florian Krammer is Professor of Vaccinology in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This article first appeared on The Conversation.
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