A vaccine for Wuhan coronavirus could take years to develop, based on our experience trying to fight Zika and Ebola

People wear masks to defend against coronavirus

Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Citizens wear masks to defend against new viruses on January 22, 2020 in Guangzhou, China.The 2019 new coronavirus, known as "2019-nCoV", was discovered in Wuhan virus pneumonia cases in 2019, and the virus was transmitted from person to person. Currently, confirmed cases have been received in various parts of the world.

  • Several biotech companies have rolled out plans to develop vaccines to protect people against the Wuhan, China coronavirus, with support from global health groups and the US government.
  • But vaccine development has historically been an arduous, multi-year process. None of the biotechs provided expected timelines to get their vaccines on the market.
  • Previous infectious disease outbreaks, including for the Ebola and Zika viruses, show the challenges likely to face experimental vaccines for this virus as well.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

US health officials and global organizations are racing to respond to the spread of a deadly virus coming out of Wuhan, China.

One piece of that effort is enlisting biotechs to begin searching for an effective vaccine. 

Several companies, including Moderna, Novavax and Inovio, have announced preliminary development plans. But a look back at recent history of other infectious diseases such as Ebola, Zika and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) show these vaccines have faced a challenging and lengthy path.

Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated the first clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine could begin before this summer, in an interview with the industry publication Biocentury.

"We likely will be able, unless there are unanticipated roadblocks, to start a Phase 1 trial in about three months," he said.

The Wuhan coronavirus has now infected more than 630 people and spread to 9 countries. At least 18 people have died.

 

The first Ebola vaccine emerged from roughly 20 years of research

The first Ebola vaccine was approved last month in the US after roughly two decades of research and four years of clinical testing in thousands of people. The National Institutes of Health is testing a range of vaccine candidates against Zika, a virus transmitted by mosquitoes that began spreading widely in 2015.

A 2003 outbreak of SARS led to a similar rush for developing vaccines. More than 15 years later, there is still no approved SARS vaccine. In part, that's because public health efforts helped halt the spread of the virus, leaving little need for a vaccine, according to Christopher Raymond, an analyst at Piper Sandler.

Part of the challenge is finding sources of funding that won't dwindle once an outbreak is over, Maria Elena Bottazzi, a co-director of Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, told Business Insider.

Bottazzi said the reactionary nature of this funding is one of her biggest concerns for future vaccine development. In the case of her team, they were developing a SARS vaccine when Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, broke out. 

That led to shift in funding to focus on MERS, at the expense of the continued development of their SARS candidate. Now, considering the new coronavirus outbreak, she said that will be the key challenge to watch for as some candidates move into clinical testing.

"The scientific hurdles are the lower of the hurdles," she said. "Scientifically, we can move quickly. It's the hurdles of how to then mobilize the resources, create the partnerships, and eventually who is going to bring it to the point where we can deliver it to the population."

It can take one to 3 years to develop a vaccine

Botazzi estimated that it can take one to three years to develop a vaccine and get it into people's hands.

Moderna, a $7 billion biotech based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of these biotechs now in the early stages of producing an investigational vaccine. The company's CEO, Stephane Bancel, acknowledged some of the disease's unknowns are likely to create challenges in testing potential vaccines.

"We do not know the incubation time of the virus - 2 days or 2 weeks. We don't know how long people stay sick - a day or three weeks," Bancel said Thursday in an interview with Business Insider. "That has very big implications for the modeling you do."

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Fauci and two other scientists noted that we're getting better at developing vaccines, thanks in part to innovations from companies like Moderna. They said it took about 20 months to get to early human trials of a vaccine for SARS, but the timeline has since been compressed to the span of a few months.

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