The deadly virus has now claimed the lived of 2,600 people after infecting more than 79,000 worldwide. Experts now fear a global pandemic, after Italy confirmed six people have died following a surge in cases. Over the weekend, Australian scientist claimed they had developed a vaccine, adding to the list of international researchers trying to bring a cure to market as soon as possible.
But, Nicola Stonehouse, professor in molecular virology at the University of Leeds, has warned it could take decades before that is a reality.
She told Wired earlier this month: “To make a vaccine conventionally – to test it and actually get it on the market – can take a decade, and has done.
“In fact, it’s taken several decades for some vaccines in the past.”
Unfortunately, she added, creating a vaccine is a slow and meticulous process.
They have to go through multiple stages of development – from discovery to clinical trials before they can be passed as safe.
Dr Stonehouse explained why many manufacturers will lose motivation to produce the vaccine the longer the outbreak goes on.
But that does not make their work useless.
She added: “Pharmaceutical companies generally don’t make lots of money out of vaccines because you’re offering them to a large amount of people, so you have to make them very cheap.
“There has to be some governmental pressure in order to promote the manufacture and distribution of vaccines.
“What it might do is help control future outbreaks.
“The principles of doing the research and what you find out along the way can be applied to future projects.
“Even if it’s not used for this outbreak, it could be used for the next outbreak and that is surely a good thing.”
Officially known as COVID-19, the new virus is a new strain of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people in the early Noughties.
It is also a distant relative to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first reported in 2012, which spread to 21 countries by 2015.
Florian Krammer, professor in microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine, revealed how former outbreaks help speed up the process of creating a vaccine.
She added: “We know from the SARS vaccine that what we really need to target is that spike protein.
“That was demonstrated nicely with SARS and later on with MERS.
“We are way better prepared for this now.”
The coronavirus relies on this protein in order to “spike” through cells’ defences and cause the infection.
As with SARS and MERS, the vaccine will need to target this spike protein to stop it from entering the cell.
But, in the last SARS outbreak, vaccines never went to market, as by the time scientists had developed one – 20 months after the release of the virus genome – the outbreak was already under control and drug firms were no longer willing to manufacture the vaccine.