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US, China and Russia rush to work on vaccine as coronavirus spreads

  • 29 Jan 2020

The novel coronavirus has infected more than 6,000 people in China and other countries. The most recent cases were confirmed in the UAE, making it the first Arab state with the virus.

Scientists work at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization's International Vaccine Centre, which is currently researching a vaccine for the novel strand of the coronavirus, at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. File photo taken on October 18, 2019. ( David Stobbe/VIDO-InterVac/University of Saskatchewan / Reuters )

Russia and China are working to develop a novel coronavirus vaccine and Beijing has handed over the genome of the virus to Moscow, a Russian diplomatic mission in China said on Wednesday. 

China said the national death toll had risen to 132 on Tuesday, with 5,974 confirmed cases, including in Hong Kong and Macau. 

Another 16 countries also have the virus, with the United Arab Emirates reporting four cases in one Chinese family on holiday. 

"Russian and Chinese experts have begun developing a vaccine," the Russian consulate in Guangzhou city said in a statement.

It was not clear if Russian and Chinese scientists were working together or separately. The consulate in Guangzhou could not be reached for comment.

"The Chinese side handed over the virus genome to Russia, which has allowed our scientists to rapidly develop express-tests that make it possible to identify the virus in the human body within two hours," the consulate said in the statement.

This map by TRT World shows the global spread of the noval coronavirus as of 1220 GMT on January 29, 2020.(TRTWorld)

Lab-grown virus

A team of scientists in Australia said on Wednesday they have successfully developed a lab-grown version of the virus, the first to be recreated outside of China, in a breakthrough that could help quicken the creation of a vaccine.

The researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne said they would share the sample, which was grown from an infected patient, with the World Health Organization (WHO) and laboratories around the world.

"This is a step, it's a piece of the puzzle that we have contributed," Doherty Institute Deputy Directo Mike Catton told reporters while noting the development alone would not turn the tide in the battle against the virus.

The flu-like virus broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019. While China has since moved to lock down most of Hubei province, which has a population around the same as Italy, the virus has still spread to more than a dozen countries from France to the US. The virus spreads in droplets from coughs and sneezes and has an incubation period of up to 14 days. 

A laboratory in China had already successfully grown the virus but had released only the genome sequence, not the sample itself, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Raina MacIntyre, who runs the Kirby Institute's Biosecurity Research Program, said the creation and sharing of the virus sample would hasten the development of potential vaccines, as drugs could be tested on animals injected with the disease.

"More people are able to culture the virus, they can use the information to develop drugs, vaccines, and better characterise the nature of the virus and the transmission," MacIntyre said by telephone.

As well as contributing to the creation of a vaccine, the Australia-grown sample could be used to generate an antibody test, which would allow detection of the virus in patients who had not shown symptoms, the Doherty Institute said.

"Having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods," said Julian Druce, the institute's virus identification laboratory head.

The Peter Doherty Institute is a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital. The Kirby Institute is attached to the University of New South Wales. 

Molecular clamp approach

At the University of Queensland in Australia, scientists backed by the global health emergency group the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) said they are working on what they describe as a "molecular clamp" vaccine approach.

The technology adds a gene to viral proteins to stabilize them and trick the body into thinking it is seeing a live virus and create antibodies against it.

Keith Chappell, an expert in the University's school of chemistry and molecular biosciences, said the technology is designed as "a platform approach to generate vaccines against a range of human and animal viruses."

It has already shown promising results in lab tests on other dangerous viruses such as Ebola and the coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) - a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Wuhan virus.

Human trials

The US asked China on Tuesday to step up its cooperation with international health authorities over the epidemic.

Washington has offered China assistance three times so far without success, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters.

Over in the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said they hope to advance the vaccine into phase 1 trials within three months.

When a newly-organised vaccine research group at the 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.

"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.

They are attacking from several angles, with global health and epidemic response agencies hoping at least one treatment will be in human trials within a few months.

RNAs and mAbs

Fauci's agency is partnering with US biotech Moderna Inc, which specializes in vaccines based on ribonucleic acid (RNA) - a chemical messenger that contains instructions for making proteins.

That team hopes to make an RNA vaccine based on one of the crown-like spikes on the surface of the coronavirus that gives the family of viruses their name, an approach that, unlike many vaccines, would not expose people to the virus.

Novavax, which already has a vaccine in development against MERS, says it is now working on one for the Wuhan coronavirus.

Scientists also are turning to infection-fighting proteins known as monoclonal antibodies, or mAbs, that were developed against the SARS and MERS coronaviruses.

The hope is that similarities with the Wuhan virus will offer enough overlap in the antibodies to help people infected in the China outbreak.

Vir Biotechnology Chief Scientific Officer Herbert Virgin said his company has a library of monoclonal antibodies that have shown some success against SARS and MERS in lab tests.

Some of these antibodies have been shown to neutralize coronaviruses, Virgin said, and "may have the potential to treat and prevent (the) Wuhan coronavirus."

Health Secretary Azar said he has directed $105 million to fight the outbreak. 

Among the next steps, the CDC developed a test for the virus and aims to make it usable by state health departments, to speed diagnosis of suspected cases. 

Until Tuesday, all reported cases in more than a dozen countries had involved people who had been in or around Wuhan.

But Japan and Germany then reported the first confirmed human-to-human transmission of the illness outside China. Vietnam is investigating another case.

Foreigners airlifted from China virus epicentre

Hundreds of Americans and Japanese escaped the quarantined Wuhan city aboard charter flights on Wednesday.

Authorities last week imposed transport bans in and around Wuhan in an unprecedented quarantine effort, leaving more than 50 million people effectively trapped.

"We were not able to move freely, so we only had partial information," said Takeo Aoyama, a Nippon Steel worker who was among the Japanese nationals airlifted early Wednesday.

"The number of patients began increasing rapidly at a certain point. That was very worrying."

China has taken other extraordinary measures to try and stop the disease spreading, including bans on tour groups travelling overseas, suspending schools and extending the Lunar New Year holiday.

With global concerns mounting, the US, Britain and other countries have also advised their citizens against travelling to China.

Thousands of foreigners have been among those trapped in Wuhan, which has become a near ghost-town with car travel banned and residents staying indoors.

Countries have for days been scrambling to try and get their citizens out of Wuhan safely, but have faced huge logistical, medical and bureaucratic hurdles.

About 200 people were aboard the Japanese flight which landed in Tokyo on Wednesday morning.

Medical professionals were on the plane to carry out checks but Japan's health ministry said there were no plans to quarantine the passengers.

They would instead be asked to remain at home and avoid crowds at least until the results of the test were known.

A US charter flight also left Wuhan on Wednesday with about 200 Americans on board, including employees from the local American consulate.

The European Union will fly its citizens out aboard two French planes this week, and South Korea is due to do the same.

Australia said it would evacuate citizens from Wuhan and quarantine them on an island normally used to detain asylum seekers.

Airlines suspend China flights, cut service 

British Airways and Asian budget carriers Lion Air and Air Seoul suspended flights to China.

Several other airlines including Finnair, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific and Singapore-based Jetstar Asia reduced the number of flights to the country as demand for travel drops because of the outbreak.

British Airways said on Wednesday it is immediately suspending all flights to and from mainland China after the UK government warned against unnecessary travel to the country amid a virus outbreak.

Air Seoul, a budget airline, became the first South Korean airline to suspend its fights to mainland Chinese destinations that weren’t Wuhan, stopping its flights to the cities of Zhangjiajie and Linyi.

Lion Air said it has cancelled more than 50 flights to China well into February.

Hong Kong airlines are cutting the number of their flights to the mainland by about half through the end of March.

Cathay Pacific Group said flights to 24 mainland destinations would be reduced to 240 weekly. The company owns Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong Airlines, Cathay Dragon and Hong Kong Express.

Helsinki, Finland-based Finnair, which has actively promoted its position linking Asian and Western destinations, said it was cancelling three weekly flights to Beijing Daxing International Airport through late March, as well as its twice-weekly flights to Nanjing. 

Jetstar Asia said it will temporarily suspend flights to the Chinese cities of Hefei, Guiyang and Xuzhou starting Thursday through the end of March due to a drop in demand.

South Korea's second-largest carrier, Asiana Airlines, said it will temporarily suspend flights to the Chinese cities of Guilin, Changsha and Haikou starting next month.

Korean Air, South Korea’s biggest airline, said it is also considering grounding some of its flights to mainland China as passenger demand drops. Korean Air had operated four flights a week to the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, before suspending them on January 23.

Taiwan’s Eva Air announced a partial cancellation of flights to and from mainland China for two weeks starting February 2. 

The virus has rattled global markets and threatens to dent an already-slowing Chinese economy.

Apple was closely watching the outbreak in China, home to the firm's third-biggest consumer market and much of its supply chain, chief executive Tim Cook said in an earnings call.

Global coffee chain Starbucks said it expected a significant earnings hit after closing more than half of its stores across China.

US Federal Reserve chief Jerome Powell is likely to be quizzed about the economic impact of the virus after the bank's monthly interest rate decision on Wednesday.

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