First Vaccine


Coronavirus latest: First vaccine clinical trials begin in the United States

The first Phase I clinical trial for a potential COVID-19 vaccine has begun in Seattle, Washington.

Four adults, the first of 45 eventual participants, received their first doses of an experimental vaccine developed through a partnership between the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Moderna, a biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But while an important milestone, the Phase I trial is just the beginning of a long process to prove the drug’s safety and efficacy.

The trial is being conducted at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. Over the next six weeks, participants will receive various first doses of the vaccine, followed by a second dose 28 days later. Follow-up visits both in person and over the phone will assess participants’ health over a 14-month period. And blood samples will help researchers evaluate the body’s immune response to the experimental vaccine.

The experimental vaccine is based on messenger RNA (mRNA), which directs the body to make a protein found on the novel coronavirus’s outer shell. The hope is that this will elicit an immune response that protects against infection.

The team at Moderna had already been working on a vaccine for the Middle East respiratory syndrome, which is caused by another coronavirus. The two viruses’ similarities helped the researchers pivot to the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.

As a result, the Phase I trial was “launched in record speed”, according to a statement from NIAID Director Anthony Fauci on 16 March. It took just 63 days from the genetic sequencing of the virus to the first human injection of the vaccine candidate.

Researchers hope to have initial clinical trial data within three months. But even in the best-case scenario, the vaccine would not be widely available to the public for at least another year, according to NIAID.

13 March 23:00 GMT — US President calls ‘national emergency’

US President Donald Trump called the coronavirus outbreak a national emergency on Friday afternoon. This gives the administration broad authority in its response to the disease, including access to up to US$50 billion in federal funds to combat the epidemic. Trump said that up to half a million tests would be ready by early next week.


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Earlier that day, the president also announced plans to speed up testing in the United States, including funding for developing rapid tests and appointing a new federal coordinator to oversee the efforts.

More than 1800 people have tested positive for the virus in the United States and at least 41 have died, according to the New York Times. The virus has now been detected in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

13 March 22:10 GMT — Harvard University orders research labs to shut down

Research laboratories at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have been ordered to prepare to shut down research operations amid the growing coronavirus outbreak. Harvard is one of the first major research universities to announce that it will wind down laboratory research. Dozens of universities worldwide have already moved to teach activities online or been closed in a bid to control the spread of the virus.

However, labs doing direct research on coronavirus will be able to continue their operations, a representative of Harvard Medical School told Nature.

All labs must begin implementing a plan to stop all laboratory research activities by 18 March, said e-mails sent from deans to students and staff members in the faculty of arts and sciences and the medical school on 13 March. The suspension is expected to last at least 6–8 weeks, the e-mails say. Labs that work with live animals will be able to designate staff members for essential animal care, but microbial labs have been ordered to “freeze everything down”, says Tanush Jagdish, a Harvard evolutionary biologist.


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Exemptions will also be made for essential experiments that “if discontinued would generate significant financial and data loss”, according to the e-mails.

The announcement caught everyone in his lab off-guard, Jagdish says. “For labs to be shut down, in general, was something we did not expect.” The labs that Jagdish works in had already implemented measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19. These included alternating shifts and more strenuous cleaning protocols, in addition to extra cleaning that was instituted at the department- and university-levels. Until lab work can resume, researchers are devoting their time to grant proposals, thesis-writing and other remote work, he says.

On 10 March, Harvard had mandated that gatherings of more than 25 meet remotely, but the latest guidelines state that all meetings and courses do so, regardless of size. In addition to holding lab meetings by video chat, people have been discussing holding daily or weekly remote social hours, Jagdish says. “It helps to know that we’re all in this together.”

13 March 22:00 GMT — Europe now a centre of a pandemic, says WHO

Italy on lockdown: Rome’s Via del Corso.Credit: Giuseppe Fama/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty
Europe has now become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

More cases are now being reported in Europe every day than were reported at the height of China’s epidemic, director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in an 13 March press briefing. There are more reported cases and deaths in Europe than the rest of the world combined, apart from China, Tedros said.

Italy, which has the largest outbreak in Europe, reported 2651 new cases in the past day.

More than 132,000 cases of COVID-19 have now been reported from 123 countries and territories, according to the WHO.

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