What we know about the Wuhan coronavirus and urgent plans to develop a vaccine

coronavirus

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Samantha Sault, Writer, Washington DC and Geneva


  • The virus first appeared in a seafood market in Wuhan, China
  • The virus is thought to have crossed to humans from bats
  • Developing a vaccine is now a priority

The spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus was a cause for concern among participants at this year’s 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations (CEPI) held a press conference in Davos to provide an update on the outbreak, and announced a new partnership to develop vaccines for the virus as quickly as possible – before the outbreak becomes a global epidemic.

What is the Wuhan coronavirus?

The Wuhan coronavirus, officially called nCoV-2019, first appeared in a seafood market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. With a population of 11 million, Wuhan is the largest city in Hubei Province in Cetral China.

The virus most likely originated in bats in the market, then “crossed the species barrier” to humans. In late December or early January, it began spreading human to human, said infectious disease expert Dr. Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, during the press conference.

On 23 January, he said there have been nearly 600 confirmed cases and 17 deaths.

On 24 January, reports upped the number to more than 800 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.

A China correspondent for the Reuters news agency posted this chart showing the rapid spread of the disease.

The virus is a respiratory infection, causing symptoms including coughing, sneezing and a sore throat, similar to influenza, said Dr. Farrar.

The virus has spread beyond Wuhan, to Beijing, Shanghai and Macau as well as South Korea, Thailand, Japan, the UK and the US.

Speaking in Davos on 22 January, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam confirmed the first case of the virus in Hong Kong.

“My health colleagues are really on guard,” she said. “With this rapid flow of people across the border, we are vulnerable.”

Is the Wuhan coronavirus similar to SARS?

CEPI and several partner organizations are quickly trying to understand the disease and develop vaccines.

“We don’t know anything with certainty yet,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI. “We don’t understand the transmission dynamics of the disease. We don’t understand yet the severity of the disease.”

They do know a few things:

“Coronaviruses are a family of viruses named because of crown-like spikes on their surfaces. The viruses cause respiratory illnesses ranging from the common cold to the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS),” explained Reuters.

But it’s decidedly not SARS, said Dr. Farrar, who worked on the 2002-2003 epidemic, which spread from China to Toronto, Canada.

The Wuhan coronavirus is “easier to pass between human beings” than SARS, he warned. But people should not panic yet. While it seems like the new virus could spread to a wider population than SARS, he expects the mortality rate of the Wuhan coronavirus will be lower than the 10% mortality rate of SARS.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about epidemics?

Epidemics are a huge threat to health and the economy: the vast spread of disease can literally destroy societies.

In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and to enable access to them during outbreaks.

Our world needs stronger, unified responses to major health threats. By creating alliances and coalitions like CEPI, which involve expertise, funding and other support, we are able to collectively address the most pressing global health challenges.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum to tackle global health issues? Find out more here.

What this means for business

Dr. Farrar said there are around 450 million people travelling in China alone for the Chinese New Year, which officially starts on 25 January – and many, many more travelling in the region and around the world for the holiday.

Wuhan and other parts of China, including Shanghai Disneyland, put travel restrictions in place, which he said can “buy time,” though people will still find ways to travel and the infection can still spread, especially since people can be infectious without any symptoms.

But for now, restrictions can help. “When you don’t have treatment and you don’t have vaccines, non-pharmaceutical interventions are literally the only thing you have,” said Dr. Hatchett. In addition to travel restrictions, these interventions include things like isolation and “social distancing,” hand-washing and the use of face masks.

The next steps

To get vaccines to the clinical trial phase as quickly as possible, CEPI said they will leverage new and previously existing global partnerships and research.

CEPI announced a new partnership with US-based biotechnology company Moderna Inc. and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to develop a new vaccine against the coronavirus and conduct a clinical study for it “as quickly as possible.”

Moderna Inc. uses messenger RNA to “inject instruction into humans, for humans to make their own medicine,” said CEO Stéphane Bancel in Davos.

CEPI will also leverage an existing $56 million partnership with US-based biopharma Inovio, which was launched in 2018 to develop a vaccine against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Lassa fever.

The organization will also build upon a $10.6 million partnership with the University of Queensland in Australia to develop a platform to enable targeted, rapid vaccine production against multiple viral pathogens.

It’s “the first new epidemic disease of note” since CEPI was founded to combat the Ebola epidemic.

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