The race is on to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus.

Researchers in Seattle have launched a study to evaluate whether an experimental vaccine called mRNA-1273 could induce an immune response against COVID-19 in 45 volunteers. The National Institutes of Health is trying to develop the vaccine in 12 to 18 months, a much faster timeline than typical for vaccines, said Dr. Gregory Poland, chief of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Mayo is among the centers launching studies, he said. "I don't think it's likely," he said, "that one vaccine alone is going to meet all the different needs we have."

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Massachusetts-based Moderna, Inc., is collaborating with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop the vaccine, currently in safety trials.

The technology represents a whole new approach to vaccines, said Marc Jenkins, director of the Center for Immunology at the University of Minnesota and an NIAID council member.

Older vaccines use a weakened or killed form of a virus to stimulate an immune system response that produces antibodies. The experimental vaccine uses viral RNA to prompt host cells to take up the genetic material and translate it into viral proteins, Jenkins said. The hope is that that will prompt a protective immune system response.

The approach is appealing because scientists can make viral RNA quickly, cheaply and with a high degree of purity, Jenkins said. He said some studies in animals have generated promising results.

"This is called an RNA vaccine. As far as I know, this would be the first of its kind," he said.

Moderna completed its first clinical batch of vaccine in February and it was delivered to the NIH "just 42 days from sequence selection," the company said.

"Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection … is an urgent public health priority," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID. "This Phase 1 study, launched in record speed, is an important first step toward achieving that goal."

One of the big questions going forward is whether the novel coronavirus can change its genetic material, Jenkins said. If it can, then the virus will be a tougher target for a vaccine to hit — much like the challenge with the flu vaccine, which every year has to match the circulating strain. There is some evidence that the coronavirus has a stable genome.

“Because [Moderna, Inc.] was getting ready to roll out this technology for cancer vaccines, it was there for the taking, in a way. This is called an RNA vaccine. As far as I know, this would be the first of its kind.”
Marc Jenkins, director of the Center for Immunology at the University of Minnesota

With other infections, scientists usually had more time to use the other tried-and-true strategies, Jenkins said. He added, "The ability to deliver RNA to people in a way that prevents its degradation and gets it into host cells in a form that can be translated into protein just didn't exist before."

Poland said he questioned whether the proposed timeline for developing the vaccine is too fast. The standard pathway is built to be data-informed and reflective, he said, so that vaccines are safe and effective.

Vaccine development didn't have to play out this way, Poland said. After a new coronavirus emerged in 2002 — severe acute respiratory syndrome — experimental vaccines were developed but not fully funded after SARS stopped spreading, he said.

"Humans have limited attention spans," Poland said. "We were warned in 2002. … We were warned in 2009 with pandemic influenza. We were warned in 2014 with Ebola."

"These novel viruses have and will continue to emerge. Vaccine research is not a spigot that you can productively turn on and off. When we don't fund research into these things, look at what it's costing us as a nation and around the globe."