Moderna, federal researchers kick off vaccine work against deadly new coronavirus

Vaccine
Vaccine researchers have started work on candidates targeting a new coronavirus. (Guschenkova/iStockGettyImages)

As fears about the spread of a new coronavirus grip communities ranging from Washington State in the U.S. to China and beyond, scientists have already started working on vaccine candidates. 

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is taking the “first steps” toward developing a vaccine, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci told CNN. Cambridge, MA-based Moderna is working with federal researchers in response to the emergency, the company confirmed in a securities filing

Moderna says its “mRNA vaccine technology could serve as a rapid and flexible platform that may be useful in responding to newly emerging viral threats, such as the novel coronavirus.” The company hasn't yet tested that capability, the filing said.

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The NIH candidate won’t enter the clinic for a couple months, Fauci told CNN, and a ready-to-use shot is more than a year away.

Aside from that effort, the Baylor College of Medicine has a program to develop new coronavirus vaccines for SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine, told FiercePharma. In conjunction with NIAID, plus scientists in New York and Shanghai, the team is testing whether the vaccines could protect against the new coronavirus.

The news comes as U.S. officials confirmed the first case in the country Tuesday. In recent weeks, the new virus has caused hundreds of infections and several deaths in China. Other cases have been reported in Japan, Korea and Thailand, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Of 541 confirmed cases, the virus had caused 17 deaths as of Wednesday morning, China state television said. Worldwide, 51 patients were severely ill as of Monday, WHO said, and 12 are in critical condition. 

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that cause sicknesses including the common cold, pneumonia, SARS and MERS. The new virus first started spreading in late December in Wuhan, China.

RELATED: Merck's Ervebo, the world's first Ebola shot, wins inaugural approval in EU 

It’s the latest outbreak to spur researchers to get quickly into gear in recent years. Ebola, Zika and MERS have each caught scientists and health officials off guard as they quickly began to spread, causing fear and deaths.

Now, Merck & Co. has an approved Ebola vaccine, and vaccine candidates for other emerging diseases remain in the works. Numerous players jumped into the Zika vaccine fray as that outbreak raged, but the emergency has since subsided.  

RELATED: Sanofi pulls out of Zika vaccine collaboration as feds gut its R&D contract 

Large pharma companies may think twice about their emerging disease vaccine strategy thanks to Sanofi’s experience in a Zika vaccine partnership with the U.S. Army. The company ran into pricing outcry—despite the fact the shot wasn’t near ready for approval—and later exited the deal after the government scaled back the program. 

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