Health and Science

US health officials fast-track coronavirus vaccine, hope to start clinical trial in three months

Key Points
  • The Trump administration hopes to begin an early-stage trial for a coronavirus vaccine within the next three months.
  • A U.S. health official said the timeline is optimistic, emphasizing that a phase 1 trial does not mean "you have a vaccine that's ready for deployment."
Amid concerns about the Coronavirus causing illness and deaths in China, many parade goers during New York City, New York's annual Lunar New Year parade wore surgical masks, January 25, 2020.
EuropaNewswire | Gado | Getty Images

U.S. health officials are fast-tracking work on a coronavirus vaccine, hoping to start an early-stage trial within the next three months, the Trump administration said Tuesday.

That timeline is optimistic, and a phase 1 trial does not mean "you have a vaccine that's ready for deployment," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. It could take a year or more before a vaccine is ready for sale to the public, he said.

"It will take three months to get it into the trial, three months to get safety, immunogenicity data," Fauci said during a press briefing on the nation's response to the coronavirus. The virus has killed 106 people in mainland China and infected nearly 4,700 worldwide, including in the United States.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director doctor Anthony Fauci speaks about the public health response to the outbreak of the coronavirus during a news conference at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, January 28, 2020.
Amanda Voisard | Reuters

"Then you move into phase 2. What we do from that point on will be determined by what has happened with the outbreak over those months," he said. "We are proceeding as if we will have to deploy a vaccine. In other words, we are working on the worst scenario that this becomes a bigger outbreak."

The National Institutes of Health is working with biotech company Moderna to develop the vaccine using the current strain of the coronavirus, Fauci said, adding that Chinese health authorities were able to isolate the virus and have shared its sequence on a public database.

"Given the technology of the 21st century, we were able to use that sequence, pull out the genes of the glycoprotein spike of the particular coronavirus and make that the immunogen to be used in a vaccine," Fauci said.

There are currently no proven therapies for the novel coronavirus, which authorities believe originated from a seafood market in China. Hong Kong researchers claimed Tuesday they have already developed a vaccine for the virus but warned that it will "take months" to test the vaccine on animals and another year to conduct trials on humans before it is ready.

Vaccines can take months before they're ready for the public: Expert
Vaccines can take months before they're ready for the public: Expert

Johnson & Johnson's chief scientific officer, Dr. Paul Stoffels, told CNBC earlier this week that he believes the drugmaker can create a vaccine in the coming months to fight against the fast-spreading virus. But he added it could take up to a year to bring it to market.

Developing a vaccine to fight against a new outbreak can take a long time due to several factors, including finding animal models to test the possible vaccines and getting enough human volunteers. For example, the first human trials for the Ebola vaccine began in late November 2014. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration didn't approve a vaccine for the outbreak until December 2019.

In the meantime, local authorities in China are using Gilead Sciences' antiviral drug Remdesivir, which was tested as a possible treatment during the Ebola outbreak, U.S. health officials said on the call Tuesday. Some authorities are also using antiviral drug Kaletra, developed by drugmaker AbbVie, on a "compassionate basis."

There are also ongoing studies looking at the 2003 outbreak of SARS and the 2012 outbreak of MERS. Physicians have compared the current virus with SARS, which was identified in 2003 and killed nearly 800 people worldwide.

"When we were dealing with SARS, we developed monoclonal antibodies as potential therapeutics," Fauci said. "Given the somewhat close homology between SARS and the new novel coronavirus, there could be some cross-reactivity there that could be utilized."