SEATTLE: US researchers gave the first shots in the first test of an experimental coronavirus vaccine on Monday, leading a worldwide search for protection.
Scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle began a first-stage study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed in record time, delivering doses in the arms of four healthy volunteers.
“We’re team coronavirus now,” Kaiser Permanente study leader Dr Lisa Jackson said on the eve of the experiment. “Everyone wants to do what they can in this emergency.”
“We all feel so helpless. This is an amazing opportunity for me to do something,” volunteer Jennifer Haller said before getting vaccinated.
Three others were next in line for a test that will ultimately give 45 volunteers two doses, a month apart. The milestone marked just the beginning of a series of studies in people needed to prove whether the shots are safe and could work.
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Even if the research goes well, a vaccine would not be available for widespread use for 12 to 18 months, said Dr Anthony Fauci of the US National Institutes of Health.
President Donald Trump praised how quickly the research had progressed. Fauci noted that 65 days have passed since Chinese scientists shared the virus’ genetic sequence, adding that it was probably a record for developing a vaccine to test.
This vaccine candidate, code-named mRNA-1273, was developed by the NIH and Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna. Participants cannot get infected because the shots do not contain the coronavirus itself.
Dozens of research groups around the world are racing to create a vaccine against COVID-19. Another candidate, made by Inovio Pharmaceuticals, is expected to begin its own safety study next month in the US, China and South Korea.
The Seattle experiment got underway days after the World Health Organisation declared the new virus outbreak a pandemic which has infected more than 169,000 people and killed more than 6,500.
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Some of the study’s carefully chosen healthy volunteers, aged 18 to 55, will get higher dosages than others to test how strong the inoculations should be.
Scientists will check for any side effects and draw blood samples to test if the vaccine is revving up the immune system, looking for encouraging clues like the NIH earlier found in vaccinated mice.
“We don’t know whether this vaccine will induce an immune response or whether it will be safe. That’s why we’re doing a trial,” Jackson stressed. “It’s not at the stage where it would be possible or prudent to give it to the general population.”
Most of the vaccine research underway globally targets a protein aptly named “spike” that studs the surface of the new coronavirus and lets it invade human cells. Block that protein and people cannot get infected.
Researchers at the NIH copied the section of the virus genetic code that contains the instructions for cells to create the spike protein. The body will become a mini-factory, producing some harmless spike protein. When the immune system spots the foreign protein, it will make antibodies to attack, and react quickly if the person later encounters the real virus.
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This is a much faster way of producing a vaccine than the traditional approach of growing virus in the lab and preparing shots from either killed or weakened versions of it.
The Seattle research institute is part of a government network that tests all kinds of vaccines and was chosen for the coronavirus vaccine study.
Kaiser Permanente screened dozens of people, looking for those who have no chronic health problems and are not currently sick. Volunteers are not checked if they already had a mild case of COVID-19 before deciding if they are eligible.
If some did then scientists will be able to tell by the number of antibodies in their pre-vaccination blood test and account for that, Jackson said. Participants will be paid $100 for each clinic visit in the study.