Scientists race to develop vaccine for new coronavirus

Above, a laboratory technician works on samples from people to be tested for the new coronavirus. Death toll from the virus outbreak has risen to 811, surpassing the number of fatalities in the 2002-2003 SARS pandemic. (AFP)
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Updated 09 February 2020

Scientists race to develop vaccine for new coronavirus

  • The new virus has spread rapidly since emerging late last year in China, killing more than 800 people
  • Cases have been reported in two dozen other countries

SINGAPORE: Scientists from the United States to Australia are using new technology in an ambitious, multi-million-dollar drive to develop a vaccine in record time to tackle China’s coronavirus outbreak.
The new virus has spread rapidly since emerging late last year in China, killing more than 800 people in the mainland and infecting over 37,000. Cases have been reported in two dozen other countries.
Coming up with any vaccine typically takes years, and involves a lengthy process of testing on animals, clinical trials on humans and regulatory approvals.
But several teams of experts are racing to develop one quicker, backed by an international coalition that aims to combat emerging diseases, and Australian scientists hope theirs could be ready in six months.
“It is a high-pressure situation and there is a lot of weight on us,” said senior researcher Keith Chappell, part of the group from Australia’s University of Queensland.
But the scientist added he took “some solace” knowing several teams around the world were engaged in the same mission.
“The hope is that one of these will be successful and can contain this outbreak,” he said.
But even a timeframe of six months looks agonizingly slow with the virus, believed to have emerged from a market selling wild animals, killing close to 100 people every day in mainland China.
Efforts are being led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a body established in 2017 to finance costly biotechnology research in the wake of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people.
With a mission to speed up the development of vaccines, CEPI is pouring millions of dollars into four projects around the world and has put out a call for more proposals.
The projects hope to use new technology to develop vaccines that can be tested in the near future.

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The body’s CEO, Richard Hatchett, said the aim was to start clinical testing in just 16 weeks.
German biopharmaceutical company CureVac and US-based Moderna Therapeutics are developing vaccines based on “messenger RNA” — instructions that tell the body to produce proteins — while Inovio, another American firm, is using DNA-based technology.
DNA- and RNA-based vaccines use the genetic coding of the virus to trick the body’s cells into producing proteins identical to those on the surface of the pathogen, explained Ooi Eng Eong, deputy director of the emerging infectious diseases program at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.
The immune system learns to recognize the proteins so that it is ready to find and attack the virus when it enters the body.
The Australian researchers are using “molecular clamp” technology invented by the university’s scientists that allows them to rapidly develop new vaccines based solely on a virus DNA sequence.
French scientists at the Pasteur Institute are modifying the measles vaccine to work against the coronavirus, but do not expect it to be ready for about 20 months.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has also started developing vaccines, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Health authorities weigh the risks and benefits in vaccine approvals and if there is a public health emergency, the process could be shortened, said Ooi of the Duke-NUS Medical School.
But he added that “paradoxically, if the situation improves, then actually the pathway for vaccines would be longer.”
“If there’s a lot of these new coronavirus cases around, then you accept some risk, because of the tremendous amount of benefit you can derive, whereas if there are not many cases, the tolerance for risk would be very low.”
While there is no vaccine for the coronavirus, some doctors are trying out a potent brew of anti-retroviral and flu drugs to treat those infected, but the science is inconclusive as to whether they are effective.
Ultimately, scientists may end up in the same situation they were during the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — it died out before a vaccine could be fully developed.
A close cousin of the new coronavirus, SARS spread around the world and killed nearly 800.
But Ong Siew Hwa, the director of Acumen Research Laboratories, a biotech company in Singapore, said efforts to develop a vaccine for the new virus should continue even if the outbreak ends.
“I think a vaccine will definitely be important,” she said. “If it’s not in time for this round, it is important for the next time.”


Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

Updated 24 February 2020

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

  • Some of the plastic found in the sea is from car tire wear washed off the road
  • Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean

PORTLAND, Ore: Tiny bits of broken-down plastic smaller than a fraction of a grain of rice are turning up everywhere in oceans, from the water to the guts of fish and the faeces of sea otters and giant killer whales.
Yet little is known about the effects of these “microplastics” — onsea creatures or humans.
“It’s such a huge endeavor to know how bad it is,” said Shawn Larson, curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium. “We’re just starting to get a finger on the pulse.”
This week, a group of five-dozen microplastics researchers from major universities, government agencies, tribes, aquariums, environmental groups and even water sanitation districts across the US West is gathering in Bremerton, Washington, to tackle the issue. The goal is to create a mathematical risk assessment for microplastic pollution in the region similar to predictions used to game out responses to major natural disasters such as earthquakes.
The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn, and many are much smallerand invisible to the naked eye.
They enter the environment in many ways. Some slough off of car tires and wash into streams — and eventually the ocean — during rainstorms. Others detach from fleeces and spandex clothing in washing machines and are mixed in with the soiled water that drains from the machine. Some come from abandoned fishing gear, and still more are the result of the eventual breakdown of the millions of straws, cups, water bottles, plastic bags and other single-use plastics thrown out each day.
Research into their potential impact on everything from tiny single-celled organisms to larger mammals like sea otters is just getting underway.

Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides. (File/Shutterstock)


“This is an alarm bell that’s going to ring loud and strong,” said Stacey Harper, an associate professor at Oregon State University who helped organize the conference. “We’re first going to prioritize who it is that we’re concerned about protecting: what organisms, what endangered species, what regions. And that will help us hone in ... and determine the data we need to do a risk assessment.”
A study published last year by Portland State University found an average of 11 micro-plastic pieces per oyster and nine per razor clam in the samples taken from the Oregon coast. Nearly all were from microfibers from fleece or other synthetic clothing or from abandoned fishing gear, said Elize Granek, study co-author.
Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute found significant amounts of microplastic washing into the San Francisco Bay from storm runoff over a three-year sampling period that ended last year. Researchers believe the black, rubbery bits no bigger than a grain of sand are likely from car tires, said Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at the institute. They will present their findings at the conference.
Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean — but also, possibly, the health of humans.
Some of the concern stems from an unusual twist unique to plastic pollution. Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides, said Andrew Mason, the Pacific Northwest regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done, but these plastics have the ability to mine harmful chemicals that are in the environment. They can accumulate them,” said Mason. “Everything, as it goes up toward the top, it just gets more and more and the umbrella gets wider. And who sits at the top of the food chain? We do. That’s why these researchers are coming together, because this is a growing problem, and we need to understand those effects.”
Researchers say bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam carry-out containers and single-use items like straws and plastic utensils will help when it comes to the tiniest plastic pollution. Some jurisdictions have also recently begun taking a closer look at the smaller plastic bits that have the scientific community so concerned.
California lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation that will ultimately require the state to adopt a method for testing for microplastics in drinking water and to perform that testing for four years, with the results reported to the public. The first key deadline for the law — simply defining what qualifies as a micro-plastic — is July 1.
And federal lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, last week introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a pilot research program at the US Environmental Protection Agency to study how to curb the “crisis” of microplastic pollution.
Larson, the conservationist at the Seattle Aquarium, said a year of studies at her institution found 200 to 300 microfibers in each 100-liter sample of seawater the aquarium sucks in from the Puget Sound for its exhibits. Larson, who is chairing a session at Wednesday’s consortium, said those results are alarming.
“It’s being able to take that information and turn it into policy and say, ‘Hey, 50 years ago we put everything in paper bags and wax and glass bottles. Why can’t we do that again?’” she said.