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UK team begins tests on coronavirus vaccine

Scientists hoping to have a candidate ready for mass production by year’s end.

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Updated: February 13, 2020

A group of scientists from Imperial College London has reportedly become the first team outside China to begin animal testing on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

The virus, which causes new coronavirus-infected pneumonia, which the World Health Organization named this week as COVID-19, has killed hundreds and sickened thousands, mainly in the Chinese mainland after making the leap from infecting animals to infecting humans. The newness of the virus in humans means there are currently no vaccines, and no proven therapeutics.

Researcher Paul McKay told the French news agency Agence France-Presse that the team hopes to have an effective vaccine ready for mass production by the end of the year.

“At the moment, we have just put the vaccine that we’ve generated …into mice,” he said. “We’re hoping that, over the next few weeks, we’ll be able to determine the response that we can see in those mice, in their blood, their antibody response to the coronavirus.”

Scientists in China are also understood to be at a similar stage in the drive to develop a vaccine.

Such research is usually is a long, drawn-out process that involves animal testing, human trials, and meticulous checks, but the World Health Organization is understood to be seeking safe and effective ways to speed up the process.

The new virus is a strain of a well-known virus that has been effectively controlled by vaccines in the past.

The researchers at Imperial College London hope research and testing carried out almost two decades ago into the SARS coronavirus will speed up the current process.

“We’re hoping to be the first to get this particular vaccine into human clinical trials, and that perhaps is our personal goal,” McKay said. “Once the phase one trial is complete, which can take a few months … it can be immediately started into an efficacy trial in people, which will also take a few months to complete.”

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which was established during the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos to foster cooperation between universities and pharmaceutical companies, is funding much of the world’s research into a vaccine. However, AFP reports that the Imperial College London team is self-funding.

McKay said the team’s research has been greatly helped by China’s willingness to share information.

“There’s been so much cross-sharing with all of this information,” he said. “I mean the Chinese, as soon as the genome was sequenced, they shared it freely with everyone in the world.”

Imperial College London is playing a significant role in the battle against the virus.

Researchers led by Imperial’s Professor Neil Ferguson became the first in the UK to accurately estimate the size of the outbreak. And that 1 percent of people with the disease will die from their infection.

Ferguson told the BBC he believes the number of new cases will continue to rise.

“I think we’re in the early phases of a global pandemic at the moment,” he said.

Professor Peter Openshaw has also been at the forefront of work carried out by Imperial. He is tracking how the virus affects the body and the immune system.

And Professor Wendy Barclay has pioneered work on how respiratory viruses such as influenza spread and how that information might help in fighting the novel coronavirus.

Professor Robin Shattock, who heads the lab in which the vaccine is being developed, told the United States business news television channel CNBC on Tuesday that a vaccine could still be a way off, and might not be ready until early next year.

“It still requires a lot of testing to see if these vaccines are safe and then see if they work,” he said.

Shattock also noted that his team’s work has been greatly supported by information from Chinese health officials.

John Oxford, an emeritus professor of virology at Queen Mary University London, said on Radio 4’s Today program on Wednesday that the virus does have a weakness, and everyone can play their part in defeating it, regardless of the development of a vaccine.

“It’s not about wearing a mask,” he said. “It’s less of the hand-shaking, touching, and kissing.”

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