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Scientists Are Developing A Coronavirus Vaccine
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health are working to make a vaccine for the new Coronavirus that originated in China, but they are not starting from scratch. They're employing an approach called Vaccine Rapid Response Platforms.

“It involves high-tech methods that have the potential to shave years off of development time. Ideally, they'd offer protection while an epidemic is still spreading instead of years later” – Jason Bellini

Within weeks of the world learning about the Wuhan outbreak, Chinese scientists uploaded the novel coronavirus' genetic sequence to a public database. That allowed teams around the world to start designing a vaccine. Traditional methods require an actual sample of the virus. Typically, scientists inactivate a virus using special chemicals before it's put into a vaccine.

When the inactivated or weakened virus is injected into the body, the immune system recognizes it as a foreign invader or an antigen. Vaccines use antigens to prime the body to protect against a particular virus, but vaccines developed with Rapid Response Platforms work differently. Rather than directly injecting antigens into the body, these types of vaccines typically send instructions to cells in the body. It gets the cells to produce antigen proteins that are specific to the virus it's designed to defeat. These instructions are in the form of RNA or DNA, the molecules that contain the code for building proteins.

Scientists say this process cuts down on development time because they don't have to grow the whole virus. Plus, once scientists identify and create the instructions for one virus, they can tweak those instructions to make a vaccine for a similar virus.

“So, think of the backbone as a cassette player and the new virus sequence of our target, like from the new coronavirus, that sequence that we design, and think of it as a new cassette tape, so we can just slot it in” – Joseph Kim, CEO and President, INOVIO Pharmaceuticals

“You can slot in new virus antigens” - Melanie Saville

Melanie Saville is the Director of Vaccine Research and Development at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness. CEPI is a global partnership that was launched at Davos in 2017.

“We were actually formed specifically to look at this type of situation” - Melanie Saville

In this situation, the emergence of a new coronavirus, CEPI's funding several teams from around the world that Saville says are each independently working from the platform model.

“The sort of technologies that we are looking at, some of which are really quite pioneering, can really move very quickly” - Melanie Saville

Three of the candidates are in a category called nucleic acid vaccines. One of those candidates is Moderna, which is working with the NIH. They're developing a vaccine on a platform that uses a part of the virus' genetic code called messenger RNA or mRNA, so again, unlike the conventional approach, with mRNA vaccine platforms, it's our own body's cells rather than lab techs that produce the antigen proteins that are like the ones made by the coronavirus.

“Your immune system then will be stimulated and develop antibodies to the virus so that when you see it again, it can immediately recognize the virus and prevent you from becoming sick” - Melanie Saville

More and more people are becoming sick from the novel coronavirus. As the race for a viable vaccine continues, public health officials don't know how bad the situation will be by the time they hope to have a vaccine ready for widespread distribution.

“Normally, vaccines would take years to get into the clinic, so the sort of technologies that we are looking at can really move very quickly. So, an example of that is getting from identifying the sequence of the virus to developing a vaccine, doing all of the pre-clinical testing, manufacturing, and getting into the clinic in 16 weeks” - Melanie Saville

So, around four months. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, that process took 20 months. Experts say if one of the four teams CEPI is funding is successful, it’d (might) a watershed moment for human health.

“These are very promising candidates, but they're still quite early days” - Melanie Saville

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