The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, is seen in an illustration released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. January 29, 2020. Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC/Handout via REUTERS

SINGAPORE – Scientists in Singapore say they have developed a way to track genetic changes that speed testing of vaccines against a coronavirus that has killed more than 16,000 people worldwide. 

The scientists, at the city-state’s Duke-NUS Medical School, say their technique needs just days to evaluate potential vaccines provided by Arcturus Therapeutics, an American biotech firm the school has partnered with for the trials. 

That timeframe compares with the months usually required for testing based on human responses.

“You can know from the way the genes change – which genes are turned on, which are turned off,”

A researcher works in a lab at the Duke-NUS Medical School, which is developing a way to track genetic changes that speed testing of vaccines against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Singapore March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Joseph Campbell

said Ooi Eng Eong, deputy director of the school’s emerging infectious diseases program.

Swift assessment of such changes triggered by a vaccine allows the scientists to determine its effectiveness and side effects, instead of relying solely on responses from humans who receive it, he added.

Currently, there are no approved medicines or preventive vaccines targeting the virus, with most patients receiving only supportive care, such as help with their breathing. Experts have said getting a vaccine ready could take a year or more.

Ooi said he planned to start testing vaccines in mice in about a week, with human trials expected in the second half of the year. 

Pharmaceutical firms and researchers around the globe are racing to develop vaccines and treatments for the virus, which has infected more than 377,000 people.

These efforts include Gilead Sciences Inc’s experimental antiviral drug remdesivir and plasma-derived therapy from Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. 

In a key step towards developing diagnostic methods, the  Duke-NUS scientists helped culture the virus in late January, days after Singapore confirmed its first infection. That made it the third country, outside China, to culture the virus.       

Another first was a test to detect virus antibodies even in those who had already recovered, crucial in containment efforts that have won global praise for Singapore.

From discovery to licensing, vaccine development in the past could take more than 10 years. Still, Ooi said science can now offer a much faster response.

“Everyone is racing ahead, but we are kind of writing the playbook as the game is being played,” he added.

—Reuters

By Aradhana Aravindan