Race is on to develop a vaccine against China's coronavirus

People wearing masks on the street in Hong Kong on January 30, 2020. People queue in line to purchase protective masks outside the store.  (Photo by Yat Kai Yeung/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
People wearing masks on the street in Hong Kong on January 30, 2020. People queue in line to purchase protective masks outside the store. (Photo by Yat Kai Yeung/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The race is reportedly on to develop a vaccine against China’s coronavirus.

The death toll reached 170 on Thursday, with more than 7,000 cases across every region of the country.

READ MORE: The chart that shows the rapid rise in China's coronavirus cases

Virtually unheard of a month ago, the virus has also crossed national borders into at least 15 countries, including the US, Australia and France.

The new strain - 2019-nCoV - belongs to the coronavirus class, alongside the common cold and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak that killed 774 people in 2004.

While vaccines typically take years to develop, scientists started working on a jab against 2019-nCoV within hours of it being identified, the BBC reported.

After being famously tight lipped about the Sars outbreak, Chinese authorities reportedly released the new strain’s genetic code “very quickly”.

This enabled scientists to determine where it came from, with some believing it “jumped” from bats to humans via snakes.

Knowing this, along with how the virus mutates, enables experts to better protect people against it.

Technology has also come a long way since Sars emerged 16 years ago.

Keen to get a vaccine underway, Inovio Pharmaceuticals in San Diego used DNA advances to develop a jab called INO-4800, which it plans to test on humans within the next five-to-six months.

If successful, larger trials could be carried out in China by the end of the year, according to the company.

READ MORE: China's coronavirus is 'spreading quicker than Sars'

“Once China had provided the DNA sequence of this virus, we were able to put it through our lab's computer technology and design a vaccine within three hours,” Kate Broderick, senior vice-president of research and development at Inovio, told the BBC.

“Our DNA medicine vaccines are novel in that they use DNA sequences from the virus to target specific parts of the pathogen which we believe the body will mount the strongest response to.

“We then use the patient's own cells to become a factory for the vaccine, strengthening the body's own natural response mechanisms.”

Inovio claims this could be the quickest a new vaccine has ever been developed and tested amid an ongoing outbreak.

Its work is funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), created after the Ebola outbreak that killed thousands.

Cepi is also backing the University of Queensland’s efforts to create a vaccine.

Biotech firm Moderna Inc in Massachusetts has also joined forces with the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in a bid to develop a jab.

All this is being overseen by the World Health Organization (WHO).

It claims a framework has been set up to consider safety, time from injection to “immune system protection” and availability of a potential jab.

The WHO will reportedly decide which vaccine will be tested on humans first in the next few days.

Will a vaccine against the new coronavirus be ready soon enough?

No one can predict how the coronavirus outbreak will play out.

For now, it shows no signs of slowing down.

On January 20, mainland China had 278 confirmed cases, according to John Hopkins University.

Just four days later, this had climbed to 916.

Cases then increased exponentially, reaching more than 7,000 on January 29.

While incidences are on the rise in the rest of the world, numbers are creeping up far slower.

On January 20, four cases were confirmed in “other locations” outside of mainland China.

This rose to 25 on January 24 and 105 on January 29.

The BBC reported vaccine trials take time and are best carried out in the thick of an outbreak.

To date, there is no guarantee the jabs under development are safe or effective.

READ MORE: What are the symptoms of China's coronavirus?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US follows a similar approval process for vaccines as it does for drugs.

Manufacturers typically have to first prove safety in a small number of “closely-monitored subjects”.

The next phase involves “dose-ranging studies” in hundreds of people.

Finally, the jab is tested on thousands to provide “the critical documentation of effectiveness and important additional safety data required for licensing”.

The FDA can request additional studies, or halt ongoing trials, if it has safety or efficacy concerns.

To speed things up, the administration can grant priority review applications and “Breakthrough Therapy” designation.

This was the case with Merck’s Ebola vaccine Ervebo, approved on December 19 last year.

The FDA “worked closely with the company and completed its evaluation of the safety and effectiveness of Ervebo in less than six months”.

CNN previously reported it will likely be months before the first stage of coronavirus trials are underway and more than a year before a vaccine is available to the public.

Victims of the new coronavirus are succumbing to pneumonia.

This is usually caused by bacteria, which tend to respond to antibiotics.

When a virus is to blame, pneumonia may be treated via “antiviral medication”, according to the American Lung Association.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned there is no specific treatment for coronaviruses.

Professor Peter Horby from the University of Oxford adds there is “no effective anti-viral” at the moment, with treatment being “supportive”.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JANUARY 30, 2020: A man wearing a face mask at Vnukovo International Airport; Screening the temperatures of arriving passengers is under way at Vnukovo Airport in connection with an outbreak of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus in Wuhan, China; recently, the number of people in China infected with the new coronavirus has reached more than 7,000, with the death toll in China reaching 170. Mikhail Japaridze/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Japaridze\TASS via Getty Images)

What is the new coronavirus?

Like other coronaviruses, the new strain initially causes flu-like symptoms, such as breathlessness and fever.

It likely originated at a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan that “conducted illegal transactions of wild animals”, the BBC reported.

Most of those who initially fell ill worked at, or visited, the market.

China's National Health Commission confirmed the virus can spread person-to-person, via sneezing, coughing or shaking contaminated hands.

Fatal pneumonia comes about when a respiratory infection causes the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs to become inflamed and filled with fluid or pus, according to the American Lung Association.

The lungs then struggle to draw in air, resulting in reduced oxygen in the bloodstream.

“Without treatment the end is inevitable,” said the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

“Deaths occurs because of asphyxiation.”