A coalition backed by Bill Gates is funding biotechs that are scrambling to develop vaccines for the deadly Wuhan coronavirus

Associated PressTravellers wear face masks as they walk outside of the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. China reported Monday a sharp rise in the number of people infected with a new coronavirus, including the first cases in the capital. The outbreak coincides with the country’s busiest travel period, as millions board trains and planes for the Lunar New Year holidays. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
  • The biotech Moderna said Thursday it is working with the National Institutes of Health to develop a coronavirus vaccine, as the deadly virus has spread beyond China in recent days.
  • The effort is funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a group started by Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the World Economic Forum. 
  • CEPI is also supporting vaccine-development efforts from the biotech Inovio and the University of Queensland
  • Moderna said the NIH will soon run early studies to allow for human testing, with plans to start a clinical trial in the US. Moderna did not specify a development timeline.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As the deadly Wuhan coronavirus has spread around the world, some biotech companies have announced early work to look for a vaccine that could prevent the disease.

Moderna, a $US7 billion biotech, on Thursday announced a collaborative effort with the National Institutes of Health to use its genetic drug development platform to produce an experimental vaccine. The biotech Inovio is also working on a vaccine, as are researchers at the University of Queensland, according to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which is funding the efforts.

None of them have said how long it might take to make a vaccine.

Biotech giant Gilead Sciences is also considering repurposing an experimental drug previously tested against Ebola as a treatment against this new strain, according to Bloomberg Law.

The drug is an antiviral called remdesivir. Three public health experts, including the head of the NIH’s infectious disease unit, published an article Thursday singling Gilead’s drug out by name for its potential based on previous tests in animals.

The Wuhan cornoavirus has infected about 600 people in China and killed 17. It’s been spreading around the world, and a patient in the US is currently being quarantined in Everett, Washington.

Vaccines often require difficult testing in thousands of people before being allowed on market. For instance, an Ebola vaccine developed by Merck & Co., one of the largest drugmakers in the world, required years of clinical testing on top of about two decades of research to gain FDA approval, accoding to Stat News. The agency approved the vaccine in December 2019, more than five years after a major outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa.

Human testing of potential vaccines

An NIH division focused on infectious diseases will soon begin studies that would allow for the first human testing of the vaccine, Moderna said. Moderna said it plans to eventually run an early-stage human trial in the US, which would primarily test the safety of the potential vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration reviews drugs for safety and efficacy, typically requiring companies to run multiple trials in humans that show a treatment works.

Moderna’s vaccine work is being funded by CEPI a public-private partnership launced in 2017 that focuses on quickly developing vaccines to halt potential epidemics.

CEPI was started by Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the World Economic Forum.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said his company’s technology could speed up the vaccine’s development.

“It’s really a big step forward compared to traditional vaccines,” he told Business Insider, adding drugmakers typically have to invent a manufacturing process almost from scratch for each vaccine.

He said clinical trials for the vaccine will face challenges, because there’s a lot we still don’t know about the new virus.

“We do not know the incubation time of the virus – 2 days or 2 weeks. We don’t know how long people stay sick – a day or three weeks,” he said. “That has very big implications for the modelling you do.”

Several biotechs are working on vaccines

CEPI committed up to $US9 million to fund Inovio’s work on a Wuhan coronavirus vaccine, on top of the $US56 million it previously gave the biotech for other vaccine work. The news helped send Inovio’s stock up 6.1%.

Christopher Raymond, an analyst at Piper Sandler, said investors should be cautious about betting on the vaccine work, because vaccines can take a long time to develop.

“An approval and stockpile order is likely years out,” he wrote.

Novavax, a small clinical-stage biotech in Maryland, also announced plans to develop a cornoravirus vaccine earlier this week. Shares in the company spiked more than 70%, and Novavax subsequently filed plans to raise $US100 million from investors in a secondary offering.

In a statement, the company said it “expects to develop a vaccine candidate from the genetic sequence of the Wuhan coronavirus.”

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