Arizona Scientists Work On Coronavirus Vaccine Amid CDC Warning

TEMPE, AZ — Inside the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, three researchers are in the race by science to find a vaccine for the new coronavirus that — just weeks after health officials in Wuhan, China, first confirmed it — has infected 44,000 people and killed at least 1,115.

Most of the illnesses and deaths have occurred in China, but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday there are now 13 confirmed U.S. cases. That includes a patient affiliated with Arizona State University, where the researchers are taking three distinct paths in the development of a vaccine.

The urgency of the researchers’ work was underscored by Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She told reporters in a Wednesday conference call the agency is preparing for the virus to “take a foothold in the U.S.”

“At some point, we are likely to see community spread in the U.S. or in other countries,” Messonnier said. “This will trigger a change in our response strategy.”

Scientists don’t know much about the new coronavirus, how it mutates, how lethal it is or who the vulnerable populations are.

The Arizona State University researchers got to work after the state and Maricopa County health departments confirmed Arizona’s only coronavirus case. The person wasn’t severely ill but was quarantined to lessen the chances the pneumonia-like virus would spread.


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DrBrenda Hogue, who has been studying coronaviruses for 30 years, is leading the Arizona State University coronavirus vaccine research team. Also on the team are molecular biologist Qiang “Shawn” Chen and virologist Bert Jacobs.

“We don’t know what will work, at this point,” Hogue told news station KPHO. “We like to solve problems, as scientists, and it’s certainly important with what’s happening now — with the spread of the virus in China.

“If it continues to spread and becomes more of a global problem than it is at this time, we will need effective strategies of dealing with the virus, and a vaccine is a very good way to deal with future spread of the virus.”

Vaccine development is occurring in the midst of the outbreak of the new coronavirus, named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, which wanted a name that wouldn’t stigmatize groups of people according to their geographic locations or other personal characteristics.

“There’s so much that we don’t know about this virus. Its epidemiology, its transmission patterns, who the vulnerable populations really are,” Richard Hatchett, who heads Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, told the health and medicine news site STAT.

The CEPI, as it’s known, is a global partnership created to move vaccine development ahead in emergencies such as the current one involving the new coronavirus.

“It appears at this point in time that older individuals, probably immune-compromised individuals, individuals with other medical conditions seem to be the ones who are affected the most by the severe disease,” Hatchett said.

“The vulnerable population may not be something that is geographically defined; it may be something that is demographically defined. And it may be that each country needs to prioritize whatever vaccine becomes available for those who are identified as being at the highest risk.”

Each of the Arizona State researchers brings a different area of expertise in a three-pronged approach to developing a coronavirus vaccine. Hogue is using mammal cells in her approach to the vaccine, Chen is using plants to see if they are more potent, and Jacobs will try to apply existing vaccines to the coronavirus, the Arizona Republic reported.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have received the clearance to expedite their research, and other researchers around the world also are working on a vaccine. Hogue said she and her team got a late start but can provide backup or alternative approaches.

“We know it is a highly competitive field, but we don’t know which strategy will be effective and safe for use in humans,” Hogue told the Republic.

It isn’t so much about who is first but protecting public health, she told KPHO.

“We know that it’s important that a vaccine be developed against the coronavirus,” she said, “and a large number of teams around the world are working on this as well.”

» The Arizona Republic has an in-depth story on the ASU researchers’ work on a coronavirus vaccine.

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