Scientists are moving quickly to create a vaccine to combat the coronavirus outbreak in China, but some are concerned that progress is too slow.
One sign of the breakneck pace was the announcement on 23 January by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) that it will give three companies a total of $12.5 million to develop 2019-CoV vaccines. A nonprofit formed in 2016 solely to fund and shepherd the development of new vaccines against emerging infectious diseases, CEPI is trying to have vaccines developed and tested faster than any previous effort, anywhere, ever. “This is what CEPI was created to do,” says CEO Richard Hatchett.
Each of the three efforts that CEPI supports began within hours after Chinese researchers first posted a sequence of 2019-CoV in a public database. That happened on Friday evening, 10 January, in Bethesda, Maryland, home of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Barney Graham, deputy director of NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center, began to analyze the sequence with his team on Saturday morning. The following Monday, Graham discussed his findings with researchers at Moderna, a vaccinemaker. On Tuesday, they signed a deal to collaborate.
Moderna makes vaccines by converting viral sequences into messenger RNA (mRNA). When injected into the body, the mRNA causes the body to produce a viral protein that can trigger the desired immune response. Moderna already has nine vaccines in clinical trials that use the mRNA “platform,” says Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO. “It was a really, really hard scientific challenge to make the first one, but once you get the first one working, the next one becomes really easy: You get the sequence, and this is just another one,” Bancel says. “It’s the same manufacturing process by the same group in the same room.”