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The State Of A Potential Vaccine For The New Coronavirus


The Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization meets tomorrow to decide whether the current coronavirus outbreak in China has expanded into a global emergency. The disease is still spreading - mostly in China - with more than 6,000 cases and 9,000 more suspected. The tools health officials have for dealing with the outbreak are fairly limited. The thing they need most is a vaccine, but these typically take years. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has this report about efforts to speed that up.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Trying to stop an outbreak after it started is a major challenge. Far better to prevent an outbreak from occurring in the first place.

DAVID WEINER: Vaccines are really our most successful tool to prevent infectious disease.

PALCA: David Weiner directs vaccine development at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. Vaccines work by teaching the immune system to recognize an invading virus and neutralize it. The approach Weiner is using depends on knowing the genetic code of the virus you're trying to prevent. Just a few weeks ago, Chinese scientists provided that code to the World Health Organization. Since then, the Wistar scientists, along with partners at the biotech firm Inovio, have been building their vaccine. Weiner says using modern DNA technology, you can do that quickly. He says they first used their approach a few years ago to build an Ebola vaccine.

WEINER: We were able to go from no vaccine to a vaccine tested in the clinic in about 18 months, 15 to 18 months.

PALCA: Weiner says he's hoping to have that time with his new coronavirus vaccine.

Keith Chappell of Queensland University in Australia thinks he can do even better. He also has a vaccine that's based on the virus's genetic sequence.

KEITH CHAPPELL: Our goal was to be able to hit 16 weeks from sequence information to having a product that is shown to be safe and effective and is ready for administration to the first humans.

PALCA: Right now, Chappell and his colleagues are trying to figure out which genetic sequences will be most effective at helping the immune system recognize the coronavirus.

CHAPPELL: Next steps will be moving into animal models for testing and also working out how to scale up to get to the levels that would be required for humans and beyond.

PALCA: Both Chappell's team in Australia and Weiner's team in Philadelphia are getting financial support from a fairly new organization called CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. CEO Richard Hatchett says CEPI was created when people realized that there had been an Ebola vaccine under development for more than a decade, and it still took more than a year to get it to people when the 2014 Ebola outbreak occurred in Western Africa.

RICHARD HATCHETT: There were a number of enlightened global public health leaders who said, you know, that shouldn't happen. We should have some kind of an organization to develop vaccines against epidemic diseases.

PALCA: Even in the rosiest of scenarios, Hatchett says once the vaccine is in hand, it still needs to get to people who need it, and that takes time. He's hoping the coronavirus outbreak will be like flu outbreaks, which tend to taper off when the weather gets warmer and pick up as winter approaches and people spend more time indoors.

HATCHETT: We are making very aggressive efforts in the hopes of having some form of vaccine available as early as the fall.

PALCA: In addition to the companies Hatchett is supporting, the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is also trying to make a coronavirus vaccine.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.