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Biotech firms to tackle coronavirus

Companies are quick to announce plans to diagnose or treat the novel coronavirus

by Ryan Cross
January 23, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 4

 

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Credit: FEATURECHINA/Newscom
A police officer checks the temperature of a driver in a vehicle at a toll gate in Wuhan, China.

A newly discovered coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan City, China, has sickened at least 570 people and killed 17 as of Jan. 23.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the first case of the virus in the US on Jan. 21. In the following days, several biotech companies, quick to see opportunity for both business and attention, announced plans to tackle the virus.

Gaithersburg, Maryland–based Novavax said it would attempt to make a vaccine for the virus, which is being called 2019-nCoV. Novavax’s stock rose 70% within a day of the news. The company followed up by announcing plans to raise $100 million in a public sale of its stock.

C&EN has made this story and all of its coverage of the coronavirus epidemic freely available during the outbreak to keep the public informed. To support our journalism, become a member of ACS or sign up for C&EN's weekly newsletter.

Inovio Pharmaceuticals, which develops DNA-based vaccines, announced a $9 million grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to design and test a vaccine for 2019-nCoV. The company has experience designing experimental vaccines for Ebola virus, Zika virus, and a deadly coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The San Francisco infectious-disease company Vir Biotechnology announced that it would investigate whether any monoclonal antibodies that it has on hand for other coronaviruses—such MERS and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)—could also defuse 2019-nCoV.

And Moderna Therapeutics announced that it is working with the National Institutes of Health “on a potential vaccine response” to the virus. Moderna already has multiple messenger RNA-based vaccines undergoing clinical testing. The company also announced funding from CEPI.

Academic scientists have also gone into action. Purdue University scientists Andrew Mesecar and Arun Ghosh announced that they will test existing small molecules— originally designed to target a SARS virus protein called the 3CL protease—against the new virus. Mesecar says Purdue has a biosafety level 3 facility to conduct the work in.

On the diagnostics front, the CDC has developed a real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR) test to confirm the presence of the new virus in clinical samples. It plans to share the test with health officials in the US and abroad in “the coming days and weeks.” At least one company, Salt Lake City–based Co-Diagnostics, is advertising plans to develop its own PCR diagnostics for the virus.

Chinese authorities suspect that the virus emerged at a seafood and meat market in Wuhan that is now closed. On Dec. 31, Chinese authorities notified the World Health Organization about mysterious pneumonia infections in the city. A week later, Chinese scientists identified a novel coronavirus as the cause of the infections. On Jan. 20, Chinese scientist Zhong Nanshan declared that 2019-nCoV can travel between humans.

Before 2019-nCoV, six coronaviruses were known to infect humans, according to the CDC. Four of them frequently infect humans and cause cold- and flu-like symptoms. The other two are responsible for SARS and MERS, more severe diseases with higher death rates.

Many more coronaviruses are known to infect animals, and a small number of these have mutated and jumped to humans. Searching for the origin of 2019-nCoV, a team of five Chinese scientists compared its sequence with known animal coronaviruses and discovered that it was most similar to viruses found in venomous snakes native to China (J. Med. Virol. 2020, DOI: 10.1002/fut.22099).

The man infected with the virus in the US was returning to Washington State from Wuhan. He is in isolation and being monitored. Travelers from Wuhan are being screened at multiple US airports, and on Jan. 23 the Chinese government halted transportation into and out of Wuhan.

UPDATE

On Feb. 11, 2020, the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses officially named the novel coronavirus "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2" (SARS-CoV-2). The temporary name for the virus was 2019-nCoV.

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