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As Coronavirus Spreads Rapidly, Drug, Vaccine Development Attempts to Keep Pace: Public Health Watch

FEB 12, 2020 | BRIAN P. DUNLEAVY
As the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19, continues to spread rapidly, at least in China, so too has research and development into novel treatments and vaccines to fight it, if not apace at least close to it.

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is using Moderna’s platform, said during a press briefing on February 7, 2020, that the agency is on the fastest pace ever to develop a vaccine candidate. He hopes scientists will have a vaccine available for initial safety testing within 3 months, with much of that time taken up by efforts to sequence the virus.

“The agency has the funding and technology,” Fauci told the media. “Barring any bureaucratic or regulatory holdups, which I don’t think will happen, we can almost certainly get into phase 1 in 3 months.”

President Trump’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus Task Force has budgeted $100 million for outbreak response efforts, including drug treatment and vaccine development. One of the beneficiaries of NIAID funding, the Emory Institute for Drug Development/Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory (DRIVE), currently has a drug candidate under development, the program’s director, George Painter, MS, PhD, told Contagion®.

“It is an oral with excellent in vitro and in vivo activity against multiple coronaviruses, including SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome]  and MERS [Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome],” he said, adding that the agent is being tested against COVID-19, along with partners at the University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt. Called EIDD-2801, the agent is described as a “ribonucleoside analog.”

Separate research is exploring the use of the antiviral remdesivir to treat the virus. According to Fauci, the first phase 1 trials of the drug in humans with the disease have been started in China, although officials with the manufacturer, Gilead, have pumped the breaks on this a bit, noting that the agent hasn’t been approved anywhere in the world to treat any viruses and that they still aren’t sure whether it’s safe or effective.

Meanwhile, biotech firm Inovio has received a $9 million grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, as part of its work to develop a prophylaxis for MERS.

CEPI last week also announced a partnership with GSK to make the latter’s established pandemic vaccine adjuvant platform technology for the development of an effective vaccine against COVID-19. Of course, as GSK said in a press release announcing the news, the use of an adjuvant is vital during a potential pandemic because it can reduce the amount of antigen required per vaccine dose, allowing more doses to be produced and made available to more people.

“Gaining access to GSK’s world-leading adjuvant technology is a huge step forward in developing a vaccine against [COVID-19],” Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of CEPI said in a statement.

CEPI is also funding ongoing research at the University of Queensland in Australia, where scientists are working on a “molecular clamp” vaccine designed to enable “targeted and rapid vaccine production against multiple viral pathogens,” as reported by the BBC.

Fauci noted that, in general, the speed with which these efforts have gotten underway can be attributed to the fact that Chinese officials released the genetic isolate of the novel coronavirus very quickly after the first cases were confirmed.

Of course, the cynics among us wonder whether they will come to market fast enough to contain the ongoing outbreak. Said Fauci, “We are proceeding as if we have to deploy a vaccine. We are looking at the worst scenario, that this becomes a bigger outbreak.”
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