U.S. drug maker sends first batch of possible coronavirus vaccine for human testing

Shares in U.S. drug company Moderna Inc. surged by more than 16 per cent on Tuesday after the company announced it has shipped its first batch of a possible coronavirus vaccine for humans to the government department in charge of testing its safety and effectiveness.

The drug, officially known as mRNA-1273, has been sent to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for use in a Phase 1 human clinical trial.

Chinese researchers shared the gene sequence of the virus with researchers around the world earlier this year, which has allowed numerous companies to research possible cures for the disease.

The virus that causes COVID-19 has so far infected more than 80,000 people around the world and killed more than 2,000, mainly in China. The virus is a type of coronavirus, which are so-named because of their appearance — the virus cell looks like a sphere covered in spikes that make up a crown or corona.

It is that spike that “binds and fuses to human cells, allowing the virus to gain entry,” the NIAID said in a press release earlier this month. “However, coronavirus infection can be prevented or slowed if this process is disrupted.”

Targeting those spikes has been the main goal of previous drugs that fought the MERS and SARS coronaviruses. The Moderna drug is one of many in the works that tries to do just that for the current coronavirus.

The drug should be ready to use in a human trial on 20 to 25 human volunteers as soon as April, NIAID director Anthony Fauci told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. Even if the trial and future ones are encouraging, getting to the point of a mass produced vaccine fit for widespread use could take more than a year, he added.

That timeline is much faster than the usual path to human drug testing.

“I want to thank the entire Moderna team for their extraordinary effort in responding to this global health emergency with record speed,” Moderna’s CTO said. “The collaboration across Moderna [and] with NIAID … has allowed us to deliver a clinical batch in 42 days from sequence identification.”

Other drugs

Moderna isn’t the only drug company working on a coronavirus-related drug. Gilead Sciences also has approval for the clinical testing of its experimental antiviral drug, remdesivir, in hospitalized patients who have the coronavirus.

The first trial participant is an American who was repatriated after being quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. It is being conducted at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Gilead’s drug has shown promise in monkeys infected by a related coronavirus, but the drug is currently not approved for use in China partly because of a patent dispute with a Chinese firm.

There are currently at least 80 running or pending clinical trials in China attempting to combat COVID-19, the U.S. based AIDS Health Care Foundation says.

“The last thing this outbreak response needs is a battle over patents for a drug that, at least in these early stages, appears to have some success against this coronavirus,” AHF president Michael Weinstein said.

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