'The only hope': Scientists in the race against time to develop coronavirus vaccine

As the world races to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus, scientists across the globe including in Australia, are working to develop a desperately-needed vaccine.

While Australian researchers have replicated the latest coronavirus in the lab, a better understanding of the virus is still required to produce an eventual vaccine that could be effective against the coronavirus.

It will require many months of testing.

“We don’t know much about this coronavirus, says Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, director of the Complex Systems Research Group at Sydney University.

“The data we’re getting at the moment is patchy... and I was surprised to see how fast it spread,” he told Yahoo News Australia on Thursday.

Along with the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, Prof Prokopenko has previously used anonymised census data to model how fast an influenza pandemic could spread in Australian cities.

“Containing it is unlikely to be effective as we originally hoped,” he said of coronavirus.

The 14th case of coronavirus was reported in Australia on Wednesday night, with Queensland Health confirming it is the fourth case in the state.

A 37-year-old Chinese national from Wuhan was isolated in the Gold Coast University Hospital. He is a member of the same tour group travelling with the previously confirmed cases – a 44-year-old man, 42-year-old woman and eight-year-old boy.

Prof Prokopenko said a major concern for health authorities is if Australia starts seeing “local transmissions” where people who haven’t travelled to China are infected.

“Basically the hope is that whenever new cases pop up, they are contained immediately,” he said. Ultimately, “the only answer is to get a vaccine.”

A vaccine could become available in half a year or sooner, according to Prof Prokopenko, but the process is slowed by trials required to ensure it is safe for animals and humans.

“It could be produced sooner but we’ll have to wait for human trials,” he said.

Arrivals at Sydney airport wearing masks.
Qantas is due to halt flights to and from mainland China from February 9. Source: Getty

When SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) broke out in 2003, one effort to produce a vaccine was hampered when it showed adverse effects in humans, Prof Prokopenko explained.

“I don’t think this epidemic will just run its course easily.

“Even in China, how long will this epidemic run without a vaccine?”

During the SARS outbreak, it took more than a year and a half to get a vaccine ready for human trials after the viral genome was released. But researchers got that down to about six months with the Zika virus in 2015, The New York Times reported.

However despite a breakthrough from researchers at the University of Adelaide in December, a Zika virus vaccine remains elusive.

Scientists in the US believe the work previously done to develop a SARS vaccine could be used to help fast-track a coronavirus vaccine, according to Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“If we don’t run into any unforeseen obstacles, we’ll be able to get a Phase 1 trial (early human trials) going within the next three months, which will be record speed,” he told The Times.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance in the US, he warned that “we are still in the realm of the unknown” and that a vaccine was still likely at least a year away.

Empty beds seen in a huge hall at a makeshift medical centre in a Wuhan exhibition centre.
Workers lay beds in the Wuhan living room exhibition centre, Wuhan, Hubei Province, where a makeshift medical centre has been set up. Source: Getty

CSIRO hopeful of vaccine to be tested on ferrets

Australian researchers are among those tasked with forming a clearer picture of the deadly new coronavirus in order to pave the way for testing potential vaccines.

The CSIRO has been asked by a global group that aims to derail epidemics to help determine the key characteristics of the virus.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations wants to know how long the virus takes to develop and replicate, how it affects the respiratory system and how it is transmitted.

“Our role is to take the knowledge that we will be gaining from how this virus behaves, and then creating the biological platforms that are necessary for developing and trialling vaccine candidates,” CSIRO Director of Health and Biosecurity Rob Grenfell told reporters on Friday.

It is hoped a vaccine could be developed in 16 weeks, which will first be trialled on ferrets.

What does it mean to be cured from coronavirus?

As of Wednesday morning, total infections in mainland China have risen to more than 20,438 while the death toll is at least 490. Two more deaths have been confirmed in the Philippines and Hong Kong. But a vast majority of those who are infected by the virus will ultimately be fine as their immune system fights back against the virus.

For those patients who are ostensibly cured, they fall into two categories according to Bruce Ribner, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in the US.

Speaking to The Washington Post, he explained there are patients who are deemed “clinically cured” when someone starts feeling better and stops showing symptoms like a heightened fever and coughing.

And then there’s the more important outcome of being “pathogen cured”. That’s when doctors determine the virus is actually no longer in the body and therefore the patient can’t transmit the disease.

When it comes to being pathogen cured, “we don’t yet have a good handle on what it takes,” Prof Ribner said.

Doctor in protective gears conducts online interview.
A doctor speaks with a patient during an online consultation session at a hospital in China. Source: Getty

Medical professionals have warned that more information, such as how long the transmission period lasts, is needed to understand when and how patients are properly cured.

A lack of a global standard for determining when someone is cured also complicates matters.

In Hubei province, the epicentre of the virus, someone is reportedly considered cured when they haven’t had a fever for three days and have tested negative twice on a PCR test, which looks for the virus in the body.

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