Montgomery County lab is hard at work searching for coronavirus vaccine

A Montgomery County, Maryland, laboratory is hoping they can speed up science to find a vaccine for the new coronavirus.

Researchers at Novavax in Gaithersburg, Maryland, have made it past the first milestone — making a gene of the new virus, which is a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past.

The genome of the virus was published last month. A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes. It contains all the information needed to build and maintain that organism.

On a computer, a genome sequence looks like just a lot of letters on a screen.

The first step to developing a vaccine is engineering the letters in the genome into a gene that would be seen in nature.

“I can confirm we have the gene, and that’s the blueprint for our vaccine,” said Dr. Gregory Glenn, president of research and development at Novavax. “We’re on the way.”

Usually, it takes eight to 10 years for vaccine development to occur, Glenn said. But Novavax has a lot of experience with speeding up the process.

“We made the Ebola vaccine, and we made it very fast,” Glenn said. “The real milestone is when can you be in the first human to test whether it’s going to be safe and generate an immune response in humans. From the idea in our brain, to the gene sequence, to the start of human testing, was 90 days in (the case of) Ebola.”

They were able to repeat that trend with another vaccine.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

“We also did this with a pandemic flu vaccine, kind of an analog of what is happening in China,” Glenn said. “This was a virus that was quite lethal, and we were worried. But it never really transmitted the way this virus is (doing). So we made a vaccine in 90 days.”

Glenn said that researchers are thankful that they can use years of learning from past vaccine development to speed up the current projects.

So, how are things going?

Right now, Glenn said they are in the first stages of making the protein.

“The next stage is, you do some animal testing and scale it up. And there are things that happen in parallel,” he said. “You start to manufacture the clinical lots — and that will happen soon — and then after the clinical lot is available, then you can start testing.”

Glenn said that while they have developed vaccines in 90 days before, it’s not easy.

“I would just say 90 days from the sequence being identified to starting the clinic — that’s the speed of light for vaccines. We’re hoping to meet something close to that or exceed it if possible.”

Until the process is complete, Glenn’s team is working seven days a week, with late hours and a lot of 3 a.m. shifts.

“They see the disaster going on in China and spreading, and it portends a very worrisome scenario for the rest of the world. That motivates everybody.”

Glenn is not just worried about the current breakout of the new coronavirus, but a possible second wave.

When the summer comes, the virus may go away, but it will have fanned out and seeded the world, carrying the threat of a secondary, much more severe, much more widespread epidemic.

Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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