Coronavirus vaccine being created by Cambridge laboratory may offer best hope in tackling epidemic
A Cambridge laboratory could hold our best hope of tackling the coronavirus epidemic.
Professor Jonathan Heeney and colleagues are working to develop a vaccine using unique technology, the Cambridge Independent can reveal.
He believes the lab could move quickly, given the right support, and develop a vaccine ready for testing within four months.
“If we were given the resources, we could move up to a year faster than anyone else,” he said. “Right now, we are way ahead of the pack already. If we get some backing to take our vaccine candidates further, or partner up with big pharma, things can move very quickly.”
As of Thursday evening, the coronavirus had claimed the lives of 636 people in China, one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines, and the total number of cases had soared past 38,000, with the vast majority in China. Cases have so far been reported in 25 further countries, with a third case now confirmed in the UK.
On Monday, the government announced a £20million injection of funds to progress the development of a vaccine against the coronavirus, previously unseen in humans, which leads to respiratory illness that causes coughing, high temperature and difficulty breathing.
Prof Heeney is head of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge, which specialises in viruses that have crossed between species.
He is also CEO of the spin-out company, DIOSVax, that is commercialising the technology developed in the lab.
It is already being used to develop a more effective influenza vaccine following the award of money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And the lab is working towards human trials of a new vaccine for Ebola, Mahlberg and Lassa fever.
Prof Heeney told the Cambridge Independent: “It’s because what we’re doing for flu is so similar to what is required for coronavirus that we’ve been able to jump on it.”
Like flu, the genetic code of coronavirus is made from RNA, rather than DNA. This means it is more liable to mutation and harder to develop a vaccine against.
“Our technology has been developed to address that problem,” said Prof Heeney.
Using a combination of next generation sequencing, bioinformatics and synthetic biology, the lab locates a critical area of a virus’ genetic code that does not change in order to disable it.
The approach is designed to rapidly speed up the development of a successful vaccine, but months of rigorous testing would still be required, first in animal models such as mice, and then through human trials.
“There are a lot of people out there saying they will have a vaccine in four to six weeks. If that is the case, and they try to put something into people, they may kill them. We call it immune enhancement. They could make the disease worse,” said Prof Heeney.
“If somebody is vaccinated with the wrong kind of vaccine, they could get a more serious respiratory disease. It is a dangerous game.”
Prof Heeney’s lab began carrying out molecular modelling within days of the genetic sequence of the virus being published following the outbreak in Wuhan, in Hubei province.
The team has been in touch with Public Health England and international health authorities to request blood samples from infected individuals.
Using their state-of-the-art biocontainment laboratory within the Department of Veterinary Medicine, off Madingley Road, these samples could be used to monitor the immune response provoked by the vaccine candidates.
The virus particularly affects the elderly and vulnerable, or those whose immune system is compromised.
A number of other groups and pharmaceutical companies around the world are also working on a vaccine.
Meanwhile, Lion Yard shopping centre in Cambridge cancelled its Chinese New Year event and parade, which had been due to take place on Sunday (February 2). It had teamed up with the Cambridge Chinese Federation and Cambridge Chinese Cultural School for the occasion.
Centre manager Roger Allen said: “I’m sure everyone will agree that this is the right decision to take and our thoughts are with those that are affected by this terrible virus and the Chinese community as a whole.”
And St John’s School in Cambridge cancelled the visit of four visitors from Nanjing in the Jiangsu province of China. Parents had voiced concerns about the event. The school said all four were well, but that as an “extra precaution” they had been asked not to visit.
The University of Cambridge is asking all staff who have visited China recently to work from home for 14 days. And Jesus College, which entertained 15 guests from Wuhan from January 13-22, after the outbreak had begun, has confirmed none of the visitors has fallen ill since the visit.
The government has urged all Britons to leave China if they can.
The £20m will go to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, a partnership launched in 2017 initially to tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
More by this authorPaul Brackley