Under the fluorescent lights, inside a series of labs, researchers believe they may have cracked the code to create a vaccine for the new coronavirus, which has officially named COVID-19.
“It’s rapidly evolving,” said Dr. Gregory Glenn, president of research and development at the Maryland-based company Novavax. “As a company, we are very invested in looking at how to protect people against infectious diseases.”
Novavax is one of several pharmaceutical companies around the world, racing to develop a vaccine for the strain of the coronavirus, which recently emerged in Wuhan, China.
“We have to puzzle-solve with vaccines,” Glenn said. “We think about: what do we want to have the immune response to target? Because that should block the infection and stop the illness and that’s the goal here.”
He showed a three-dimensional computerized depiction of what the virus looks like.
“The coronavirus – corona being ‘crown’ – has spikes,” he said. “Those spikes have a very important function. They let the virus bind to the human cell and then those spikes act as a syringe to inject genetic material into the human cell.”
A vaccine would potentially stop that process, thereby protecting a person from the coronavirus.
“We have the gene, we have the vaccine, we’re going to move it into animal testing shortly,” Glenn said. “Our goal is in late spring to be testing in humans.”
It normally takes about 18 months to get human trials started on a vaccine. This shorter time frame is nothing new for the company; they developed an Ebola vaccine within 90 days ready for testing – but there’s a catch.
It can take years for a vaccine to get approved, but under dire circumstances sometimes they can be used through something called “expanded access” or “compassionate use” – meaning, the vaccine can be used in humans, before it’s fully licensed.
“That happened with Ebola – they didn’t have a licensed vaccine, but they were able to use it under ‘compassionate use,’ they developed evidence that it was working,” Glenn said.
As for a fully approved coronavirus vaccine, experts say that would take longer.
“A vaccine in a year would be record-setting time, but not in time to probably have much impact for this disease outbreak,” said Dr. Eric Toner with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
However, if the coronavirus sticks around or comes back stronger in a second wave of the disease, Glenn said they want to be ready.
“We know time is of the essence here,” he said.
So far, approximately 73,000 people have been infected and more than 1,800 people have died from the most recent strain of the coronavirus.