When a newly organised vaccine research group at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) met for the first time this week, its members had expected to be able to ease into their work. But their mandate is to conduct human trials for emerging health threats — and their first assignment came at shocking speed.
In just three months time, they likely will be testing the first of a number of potential experimental vaccines against the new SARS-like coronavirus that is spreading in China and beyond.
“I told them, ‘you are going to have your baptism of fire, folks’,” Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases within NIH, said of his inaugural address to the group this week.
Three months from gene sequence to initial human testing would be the fastest the agency has ever gotten such a vaccine off the ground, Fauci said.
The outbreak, which began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, as of Friday had infected more than 800 people in China and killed 41. Cases have also been confirmed in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal and the United States.
Chinese scientists were able to quickly identify the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus and officials posted it publicly within a few days, allowing scientific research teams to get to work right away.
With the genetic code in hand, scientists can start vaccine development work without needing a sample of the virus.
During the deadly 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, it took US scientists 20 months to go from genetic sequence to the first phase of human trials. By that time, the outbreak was under control.