#AnimalResearchSavesLives: Work on vaccine to COVID-19 coronavirus begins

January 29th 2020

Update: *April 3, 2020. This post was updated to reflect current findings on “the missing link” for SARS-CoV-2 transmission between bats and humans.

The first reports of a new virus spreading throughout Wuhan, China began in late December 2019. Since then the virus has continued to spread throughout China and beyond, with cases popping up worldwide. In China alone the number of confirmed cases is over 4000 and there have been more than 100 deaths. To curtail the spreading and outbreak, China has restricted travel for almost 60 million people, in 15 cities across the Hubei province (of which Wuhan is the capital). In addition, China is building two new hospitals (to be completed in the next week) to treat victims of the epidemic.

The virus in Wuhan is a vivid reminder of the ongoing need for medical advances to save lives and reduce suffering across the globe, not only for well-known chronic diseases, debilitating illness and injuries, but also new public health challenges. Around the world, scientists, physicians, health care providers, public health agencies and others are working to halt the spread of the virus. A look at their work serves as a reminder of the vital role that the study of other animals plays in our response to this epidemic (and possible pandemic).

Here’s what experts know so far about coronaviruses, which includes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Wuhan Virus.

    • MERS, first reported in 2012, is another coronavirus that has caused a total of 2494 cases and 858 deaths, the majority of which are in Saudi Arabia. Zoonotic transmission events have primarily been attributed to an intermediate host, the dromedary camel, although the source, like SARS, is the bat.
    • The Wuhan virus (officially referred to as 2019-nCoV or COVID-19) also belongs to the coronavirus family (like SARS and MERS) and that typically results in respiratory illnesses.
    • The source of the Wuhan Virus was quickly identified given its similarity to SARS — scientists knew where to look—the food markets. By studying the markets where the virus originated, scientists were able to deduce that it was most likely a zoonotic virus potentially spread from bats to snakes (which hunt bats) to humans (which eat snakes). Wuhan leaders quickly closed and disinfected the first identified market. It is worth noting that some scientists have questioned  whether the snake is indeed the intermediate host for the Wuhan virus.
      *On March 27, 2020, a new study by University of Michigan researchers identified Malayan pangolins as the missing link for SARS-CoV-2 transmission between bats and humans.
    • Subsequent to the SARS outbreak, researchers produced a vaccine that made it to phase one human trials, which tests the safety of a new drug. But the effort never progressed further, mainly due to shifting research priorities as the outbreak came to an end, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
    • Before moving to clinical trials in humans, the safety and efficacy of the SARS vaccine was tested in mice and rabbits (e.g., here and here). Why?  Because the ethical codes adopted by many nations require that human lives and safety are prioritized. In addition, it is only through controlled, laboratory studies that the effectiveness of a vaccine can be adequately and most rapidly measured.
    • During the SARS outbreak, it took just 20 months to go from genetic sequence to the first phase of human trials. The Wuhan virus’s genetic code is already known, and experimental vaccine candidates are being prepared — thanks to modern genetic techniques, and decades of basic research, much of which involved #AnimalResearch. Around 50 years ago, we understood very little about genetic codes and how to design vaccines from just the genetic code itself. But thanks to basic research on viruses, bacteria, nematodes, research animals, and humans the field of genetic sequencing has exploded, giving us powerful tools for improving human and animal health. Knowing the genetic sequence of the Wuhan virus has allowed us to confirm that the virus is from the coronavirus family and related to SARS and MERS.
    • Candidate vaccines for the Wuhan virus vaccine will be ready in three months, says  Dr. Fauci. Although 3 months may seem unimaginably long to those living in fear right now, the contrast with 20 months it took for the first human trial of a SARS vaccine, makes the point of why previous advances, speed, and response capacity matter.
    • Our preparedness to face this emergent threat is because of #AnimalResearch into the source of the virus and in the development of the SARS vaccine. NIAID is working with Moderna Inc., a pharmaceutical company to develop the Wuhan virus vaccine. Additionally, Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Novavax Inc. are also working on candidates and are backed by the non-profit group, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations who is also funding the University of Queensland in Australia to work on the vaccine.
    • The safety and efficacy of all vaccines are tested in animals before making their way to clinical (human) trials. Global society could decide that we should instead test all new vaccines in humans and this is exactly the outcome that groups opposed to animal research promote . In the case of the Wuhan virus, which is associated with a real chance of fatality, would you want the safety and efficacy of a vaccine to be tested on humans, without the controls inherent to animal studies.

So, the next time you hear animal research is irrelevant, remember this one of hundreds of examples of where #AnimalResearchSavesLives. Future threats are not always predictable, but animal research is essential in providing foundations to tackle these unknown threats.

~Speaking of Research