A Canadian scientist working on a vaccine to treat the coronavirus outbreak says it could take up to three years before it reaches the people who need it. And, if the coronavirus outbreak is anything like that of SARS, there may not even be a need for the vaccine by then.
Scientists at the International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan began work on developing the vaccine when the novel coronavirus was first announced. However, Darryl Falzarano, a research scientist at the centre, said that it could take up to a year before the vaccine is deemed ready for clinical trials, and a couple more before it’s distributed to the regions in need.
“There’s no pre-existing information,” the virologist said. “It’s related to SARS and SARS-like viruses that have been found in bats, but, on it’s own, its something unique and new.”
As of Thursday, the virus has killed 170 people and has infected more than 8,000 people in mainland China. Canada has confirmed three cases of the coronavirus.
Scientists in China sequenced the genome of the novel coronavirus and released the data publicly
on Jan. 10, allowing teams around the world to kickstart efforts into researching a vaccine. Australian scientists announced on Jan. 28 that they were able to recreate the virus and were willing to share samples with other teams — a key element to testing vaccines.
“You don’t need the virus to make a vaccine for that virus. But to actually test if the vaccine works at some point, you need the virus to challenge and show protection,” Falzarano said.
A team is currently in the preliminary stages of developing a vaccine. “We have a plan, we have reagents that are being made” to build the vaccine, he said. Once a prototype is developed, the team will test its efficacy in an animal model “to see whether or not its immunogenic.”
Rounds of animal testing could take another three months, he said, which would then be followed by “making the vaccine so its acceptable for clinical use.” It’s difficult to predict exactly when the vaccine could be ready for clinical trials, Falzarano said, but “the general consensus” is that it could take up to a year. And it could be another year before the vaccine can be distributed.
“That sounds like a long time,” but in reality, the process has been “accelerated,” Falzarano said. “Most vaccines are taking almost 10 years from discovery, to clinical trials, to approval.”
“It could be two years before the vaccine is ready to be distributed, Falzarano said. “There’s no point in having a vaccine if it’s not safe.”
Mass-producing and distributing the vaccine to the necessary regions could add another year, maybe two.
“It involves getting a commercial partner to produce the vaccine, getting the vaccine conditionally approved in the countries you want to use it,” he said. “A lot of those things are out of our hands and up to the regulatory authorities.”
Research into SARS and other strains of coronaviruses has helped scientists use a “much more focused” approach than if they had no information at all.
The coronavirus that caused the SARS outbreak and the 2019-nCov “are probably between 75 per cent and 80 per cent similar at a genetic level … and are part of the same subgroup of coronaviruses,” said Dr. Samira Mubareka, an infectious disease consultant at Sunnybrook Hospital.
They are somewhat similar in the sense that both viruses are “transmitted by the respiratory route” and attach to the same host cell receptors, she said. “However, that’s not enough to say that they are the same virus.”
The data from SARS and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Virus) have helped identify the antibodies that protect host cells against a coronavirus spike protein, which rests on the surface of the virus cell, Falzarano said. This helps scientists save time on research.
“There are different strategies that you can use to make a vaccine like that, but that’s a starting target,” he said.
Researchers had worked on a potential vaccine for SARS in 2003 and then again for MERS 10 years later. But both outbreaks were contained before the prototypes went to trial, and the vaccines were shelved.
According to The New York Times, researchers at the National Institute of Health in Maryland modified the genetic code in a template for a previously developed SARS vaccine in the hopes that it could treat the new virus.
However, Falzarano is doubtful as to whether a SARS vaccine could be used to treat the novel coronavirus. “It’s related, but it’s not that close,” he said. “Of course, repurposing a SARS vaccine that maybe never made it into clinical trials but made it far through animal testing would still be quicker than starting from the beginning again. We don’t know for sure, as yet, if that’s the case, but it kinda looks — based on some data that people have reported — that it would not be protective.”
It’s “possible” that the coronavirus outbreak could be contained before the vaccine is deemed ready. “At this stage, it appears that it could be less severe than MERS,” said Mubareka, adding that it’s still hard to say given how early it is.
Efforts to contain outbreaks have improved since SARS. It took five months after the SARS outbreak for American and Canadian authorities to sequence the genome of the virus. This time, Chinese scientists released the data sequence of the genome for 2019-nCov within weeks of the announcement, allowing scientists to begin work on a vaccine earlier than last time.
“SARS was very difficult, it (relied) on a lot of observational stuff,” said Mubareka. “And people were doing all kinds of different things — steroids, interferon — and things could have gotten better or worse regardless of what we did because there was no clear trial or study.”
Now, she said, medical professionals are looking at approved anti-viral drugs and treatments to treat patients if their symptoms don’t go away naturally. “Things are a little bit better.”
Falzarano agrees that it is possible for the outbreak to be contained before a vaccine is ready. “But we don’t know that, right, that’s very hard to predict,” he said. “It could be that it’s just worse. Of course we should hope that public health measures and quarantine are able to contain that on its own. But that shouldn’t mean we should sit around and see what happens. Seems irresponsible.”
While “it would be great” if the outbreak were to be contained quickly, Mubareka cautions against allowing production to go down the same route as the previous prototypes. “It might be hard to test if it does get contained” due to a lack of candidates for clinical trials, she said, but the knowledge gained from developing the vaccine could be useful should there be a separate outbreak in the future.
“If it does get contained initially, (the vaccine) could be applied should the virus re-emerge,” she said. “It’s highly unlikely, but we should learn to never say never.”