With the number of coronavirus cases climbing above 45,000 with 1,115 reported deaths, scientists are racing to develop a safe and effective vaccine against the disease. A team at Imperial College London believes they may be the first to start testing a potential vaccine on mice.
The novel coronavirus, which has just officially been named Covid-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO), was first reported on December 31, 2019, in Wuhan, China. Since then, it has managed to hitch a ride with various travelers to make its way across Asia to Europe, North America, and Oceania. However, the vast majority of cases and deaths have occurred in China, with just one death reported outside the country in the Philippines.
As Covid-19 has only recently appeared in humans, we lack immunity to it because our immune systems have never had to deal with the virus before. That’s why the development of a vaccine would be hugely beneficial, although it’s important to remember that it can take many years for a vaccine to go from conception to clinical use in people.
"At the moment we have just put the vaccine that we've generated… into mice," Imperial College London researcher Paul McKay told AFP on Monday.
"We're hoping that over the next few weeks we'll be able to determine the response that we can see in those mice, in their blood, their antibody response to the coronavirus." The researchers are using what they know about the SARS coronavirus, which shares various similarities with Covid-19, to inform their work.
If the animal testing stage of the vaccine’s development goes smoothly, the vaccine will then need to be tested out on humans in clinical trials. It must be proven both safe and effective before it can be given to the masses. This can take a very long time, but the Imperial team is hopeful that they might be able to whizz through the process.
“We have the technology to develop a vaccine with a speed that’s never been realised before,” said Professor Robin Shattock of Imperial’s Department of Infectious Disease last week. “We have successfully generated our novel coronavirus vaccine candidate in the lab – just 14 days from getting the genetic sequence to generating the candidate in the lab.
"If this work is successful, and if we secure further funding, the vaccine could enter into clinical studies (with human participants) in early Summer.”
“Perhaps by the end of this year there will be a viable tested vaccine that would be suitable for use in people," added McKay.
Although there has been a great deal of panic surrounding the new virus, the WHO announced Monday that the number of new cases in China is beginning to stabilize. What’s more, the virus only kills a teeny portion – around 2 percent – of people it infects. If you are generally fit and healthy with an uncompromised immune system, it’s unlikely you will die if you catch the virus. Measles, which many choose not to vaccinate their children against, has a much higher death rate (15 percent).
Symptoms of Covid-19 include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, and diarrhea, with some people experiencing “little to no symptoms” and others feeling very unwell. If you think you’re infected, it’s better to stay isolated and call your doctor rather than to head to the hospital where you could pass it on to someone else.