On the genetic and drug trail to contain the deadly coronavirus in China

28-Jan-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists in China are racing to develop a vaccine and other treatments for a coronavirus that has claimed 56 lives since it was detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last month.

Xu Wenbo, director of the virus institute at Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said researchers had isolated virus strains for vaccine development, state-run news portal Chinanews.com reported on Sunday.

Xu said researchers had used “high-throughput genetic sequencing” technology to identify the pathogen’s genome one day after the first four samples of the coronavirus were sent from Wuhan on January 2.

But the CDC did not give a timeline for plans to develop a vaccine.

The Wuhan pathogen is from a large family of viruses called coronaviruses, one of which also caused the deadly 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

There had been speculation that Sars, which spread to 29 countries and killed more than 700 people worldwide, was closely related to the Wuhan virus, known as 2019-nCoV.

But researchers in Beijing said the Wuhan coronavirus could be a novel virus rather than an evolved version of Sars.

Tan Wenjie, also from the CDC virus institute, said scientists compared the genome sequence with those of a dozen other viruses, and determined that 2019-nCoV was 82 per cent similar to Sars but also 90 per cent similar to a bat coronavirus sample from Zhoushan in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, state broadcaster China Global Television Network reported.

Tan said the Wuhan virus was “a distant relative” of Sars, adding that it was still too early to say whether the new virus came from bats.

With the death toll and number of cases rising quickly on the weekend, China is struggling to treat people diagnosed with the illness.

The National Health Commission said that a combination of antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV lopinavir and ritonavir had been given to some patients infected with the Wuhan coronavirus at three of the capital’s hospitals.

Peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet reported on Friday that a clinical trial using the two drugs to treat the patients with the coronavirus was under way.

Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital in Beijing, said earlier that he had used antiretrovirals after he contracted the virus during a visit to Wuhan to assess coronavirus patients, China News Week magazine reported.

But early detection and quarantine was still the best method to prevent the outbreak’s spread, according to Zhong Nanshan, the head of a Wuhan virus team set up by the commission.

The Ministry of Science and Technology is coordinating the efforts of 11 government and military departments to streamline scientific research on containing the spread of the illness.

But it remains an open question if any effective and safe vaccine can be developed soon enough in this case, given that researchers around the world are still looking for one for Sars and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or Mers, another viral respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus transmitted to humans by camel.

About 17 years after the Sars outbreak, then State Food and Drug Administration said in November that human trials for an experimental Sars vaccine were expected to begin after success with trials on monkeys.



Category: China

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