Medical Examiner

How Close Are We to a Coronavirus Vaccine?

SARS may have given scientists a bit of a head start, but funding comes and goes with panic.

A woman with a red scarf wrapped around her head and wearing a surgical mask looks to the side.
A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she shops in a market on Thursday in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

There’s a vaccine that might protect against the new coronavirus stored in a freezer in Texas. Yes, that’s the virus that’s killed more than 500 people and infected nearly 30,000. And yes, the key word here is might.

The vaccine was developed in the early 2010s, by a team led by Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi at the Baylor College of Medicine. It was originally intended to vaccinate against severe acute respiratory syndrome, aka SARS, which is also a kind of coronavirus. It was shelved before it could get through clinical trials. SARS had long ago receded into the background, the epidemic having ended through hygiene efforts and environmental factors. Now, Hotez hopes to pull it out of the freezer for more testing, if he can secure funding. It’s possible that the new coronavirus is similar enough to SARS that the same antibodies, produced with a nudge from the vaccine, could latch onto the spiny crown of coronavirus receptors, essentially rendering the virus harmless.

And this is just one option—there are several other groups working on vaccines tailored to the new coronavirus. One team, from the National Institutes of Health and Moderna drug company, is also leveraging the similarities between the viruses and using other previous research toward a SARS vaccine as a template. (“I call it plug and play,” the lead scientist told the New York Times.) Will any of these end up working? It will take a while to figure out—potentially longer than the new virus sticks around. Indeed, Hotez’s SARS vaccine is something of a warning of what happens to a promising vaccine once the issue at hand goes out of vogue: The funding dries up, and the vaccine goes to the back of the refrigerator.

Before that happened, Hotez and his collaborators got as far as showing that their vaccine protected against the virus in animals. Hotez had wanted to keep going with the clinical trials that would prove the vaccine was safe, and then effective, in humans, too, even though the SARS threat had passed. He envisioned stockpiling the vaccine, in case of a resurgence of SARS or a similar coronavirus. By that point, it was 2016 and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome had already flared up, indicating that coronaviruses, which can jump from animals to humans, might be an ongoing problem.

Still, when the initial pile of funding ran out, so had concern about the long-gone pandemic. “When the threat is ongoing, it’s all hands on deck, everyone gets worried,” says Hotez. “When the problem’s not there, they lose interest.” He was unable to secure more funding, and the vaccine was placed in chilly storage. (Hotez has spent other money periodically testing it for stability.) In early January, as the new respiratory virus started making the news, he emailed a collaborator in China for more information: “Is it looking like SARS?”

It was: The genomes were 82 percent identical. “It’s kind of serendipitous,” says Hotez. With funding, he could partner with a vaccine development organization in China to quickly finish testing the vaccine and, if it works, use it against the current epidemic.

Whether those similarities are enough remains to be seen. Stanley Perlman, a researcher at the University of Iowa who studies coronavirus, is less optimistic about a vaccine designed for SARS working on the new coronavirus. “Maybe it would work, but it wouldn’t be my first choice,” says Perlman. He notes that the spikes that cover the SARS virus and the new virus may have some similarities but not enough that a SARS vaccine would be obviously effective.

Hotez acknowledges that the failure rate for vaccines is high and that a portfolio of options is important. But he also points to research in 2017 that showed that antibodies that could bind to SARS could bind to similar coronaviruses (though it still hasn’t been tested on this new one). He also just believes in his project: “Vaccines sort of become like your baby.”

Whether or not this vaccine is able to help, one thing is for certain: “Coronaviruses are here to stay,” says Hotez.

Update, Feb. 7, 2020: This article has been updated to include Hotez’s collaborators in developing the vaccine.