In contrast to China’s slow and secretive acknowledgement of SARS in 2003, the Chinese government and scientific community have been significantly more transparent regarding the Wuhan virus. On Jan. 31, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar praised China for its “efforts and coordination with public health officials across the globe.”
Researchers around the globe are digging through the gene data for insight.
Advances in analysis technology and gene sequencing have allowed for the genome of the Wuhan virus to be sequenced in less than a month after the first case of the virus was reported. The Chinese scientists immediately made the decoded genome public, and researchers around the globe are digging through the data for insight that will give an upper hand in combating the disease.
The need to act quickly
Time is always one of the primary factors in managing the containment and treatment of an outbreak — as of Thursday, 565 deaths and 28,353 cases had been confirmed, according to Johns Hopkins University.
There are two primary benefits of having the genome sequenced and shared so quickly.
Faster identification of the source sequence: First, by understanding the genome of the virus, health care systems are able to quickly compare samples from potentially infected individuals and the source sequence (2019-nCoV), and determine if the virus is present and spreading.
This was the case with the first infected man identified in Washington State. His doctors provided the sample to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and within a day they confirmed that the virus had spread to the United States.
Techniques such as this allow the scientific community to track not only the geographic spread of the disease, but also any potential mutations that could make it even more difficult to control.
Faster development of treatment: Second, it provides researchers with a faster path to identify potential treatments, which address symptoms, and develop a vaccine, which prevents infection in the first place, by understanding the genetic variations and similarities with other known diseases and proteins.
This helps identify therapies that are good candidates and eliminates potential dead ends. The growth in the biopharma industry and greater accessibility to advanced research techniques have also allowed for a large number of organizations, from private to public to academic, to work on a vaccine at the same time.
Searching for a vaccine
China said on Monday that it would start clinical trials with Gilead Sciences’ experimental drug remdesivir, which may be effective in fighting the virus. In addition, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Moderna and Novavax are just a few of the smaller pharma companies that are actively working on a vaccine and have seen significant positive reaction from the equity markets, even in comparison to the broader pharma and biotech industry.
A speedier timeline
To put the speed of the current science in context, with the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak it took approximately 20 months from the release of the viral genome to get a vaccine ready for human trials. With the Zika virus in 2015, the timeline had been cut to about six months.
With all this said, the virus continues to spread and a vaccine has yet to be developed. But our governments and scientists are better equipped than ever before and are optimistic that Wuhan will be addressed before there is much greater loss of life or damage to an already decelerating global economy.