Coronavirus vaccine in the works, UW-Madison experts say

Disease specialists at UW-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine expect the scientific community will produce a vaccine for the novel coronavirus in less than two months. 

“According to our [National Institutes of Health] colleagues, there’s hope that such a vaccine would be ready for human trials by April 1 of this year,” said Thomas Friedrich, a researcher in the Department of Pathobiological Science. 

Friedrich and other experts detailed the current stage of vaccine development for the virus last week during a panel discussion hosted by the UW School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. Their presentation came days before the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in Wisconsin by state health officials. 

The World Health Organization has categorized the ongoing coronavirus outbreak as a global health emergency with more than 500 associated deaths and nearly 30,000 cases in China alone. 

Scientists around the globe are working to develop methods of fighting the virus, and several panelists acknowledged the work of Chinese researchers who have sequenced the virus’s entire genome. 

According to Kristen Bernard, a professor of virology at UW-Madison, Chinese scientists have determined the new virus interacts with host cells in much the same way that the SARS coronavirus of 2003 did. 

“This also plays into where the virus can replicate in the human body, as well as which hosts, which animal hosts it can replicate in,” she said. “That’s very important information to have obtained.” 

Meanwhile, researchers at UW-Madison are working on antiviral drug treatments for the virus. 

Now that the genetic code for the novel coronavirus is widely accessible, Friedrich said disease researchers have been able to start vaccine development earlier than was possible during previous outbreaks. 

Traditionally, researchers needed a sample of the pathogen causing the infection to create a vaccine. But this time around, he said scientists are “already working actively on vaccine development” before they have a sample of the virus in their lab. 

“They’ve already been able to synthesize the most important parts of the virus in the laboratory that they want to stimulate an immune response to, and are working to develop a vaccine based on this artificial virus component,” he said. 

The global response to the coronavirus is greatly influenced by countries’ experience with previous emergent diseases, panelists said. Just since the SARS outbreak in 2003, the world has contended with an influenza pandemic in 2009, an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2012, and multiple outbreaks of ebola in 2013 and again in 2018. 

Three-fourths of all new emerging pathogens for human beings originate from animals, according to Christopher Olsen, a professor emeritus of public health at UW-Madison. He says the new coronavirus likely falls under this category, as it seems similar to the SARS virus that originated in bats. 

“There are animal markets in many parts of the the world — perhaps most conspicuously in Asia and West Africa — which sell not only prepared foods and meats but also live animals of a variety of different forms,” he said. “With that mixture of animals in these markets, it provides a remarkably effective venue for the transmission of viruses.” 

He said conditions like these led to several of the large viral outbreaks of the past 30 years or so, and said “it appears this scenario is playing out again right now.” 

Olsen said many of the initial cases of this new virus had a link to a large animal market that’s now been closed by authorities in Wuhan, where the outbreak started. China has also instituted a ban on the sale of wild animals, though Olsen notes that only applies until the end of the current outbreak. 

Nearly two decades ago during the SARS outbreak, officials initially thought the SARS virus originated in civet cats. But these cats were only passing the virus from bats to humans. In the case of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, camels were transmitting the disease. 

“We don’t yet know whether, similar to SARS and Middle East coronavirus, that there is again going to be an intermediary animal host that gets this new virus ultimately from its bat origins into human beings,” he said. “I think the answer is very, very likely that that will be the case.” 

Understanding how the virus was first passed to humans is important for developing a vaccine. But the main concern for public health officials now is human-to-human transmission. 

The state Department of Health Services now has 14 people under investigation for the novel coronavirus, though test results have come back negative for seven of them. Only one person has tested positive for the virus in Wisconsin and is being quarantined at home in Dane County. Results are pending for six others. 

Track the state’s ongoing outbreak investigation here: 

–By Alex Moe