Washington, Mar 16 (efe-epa).- The United States on Monday began clinical trials in humans of an experimental vaccine to protect against the coronavirus, the National Institutes of Health announced in a statement.
The NIH said that the “first stage” of the clinical trials to evaluate a research vaccine designed to combat the new coronavirus, or Covid-19, began on Monday at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle.
The NIH is financing the project through one of its centers: the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Scientists on Monday administered the vaccine by injection to the first of 45 healthy volunteers, all of them adults between the ages of 18 and 55, who will take part in the experiment over the next six weeks. Each participant will receive two doses of the vaccine a month apart and will be carefully monitored to see how well their bodies produce an immune response against the virus.
The vaccine has been designated RNA-1273 and was developed by NIAID scientists and the Moderna biotech company.
The study is evaluating different doses of the experimental vaccine to determine how safe they are and their ability to induce an immune response in the volunteers.
NIAID director Anthony Fauci, who in recent weeks has been in the forefront of public explanations of Covid-19, has said that even if the clinical trials go well, and the vaccine is found to be safe and effective, it would not be ready for widespread use for 12-18 months, although that could help if the virus proves to be a long-term threat.
Fauci has also said that finding a safe and effective vaccine against the virus is an “urgent” public health priority.
Currently, no vaccine that has been approved by health authorities exists to prevent contagion, and humans do not have any immunity to this new coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December.
Coronaviruses are spherical in shape and have so-called “spike” proteins on their surfaces that look like crowns. These spikes enable the virus to enter human cells, but if a vaccine like this one can block that protein, then people won’t get infected with Covid-19.
So, NIH scientists copied the portion of the virus’s genetic code that includes the “messenger RNA” instructions for cells to manufacture the spike protein and created a vaccine from it.
Since the vaccine orders cells in the body to produce the spike protein, it is hoped that this will provoke a strong immune response so that the body can fight off the real virus.
This would be a quicker way of producing an anti-coronavirus vaccine than the method that is normally used: growing the virus in a lab and taking killed or weakened versions of it and injecting it into people so that their bodies can create antibodies to fight the living virus, should they encounter it. This is how the yearly flu vaccine is prepared, for instance.
According to NIAID, the experimental vaccine has shown promising results in lab animals, specifically mice, but Monday’s launching of the clinical trials in humans is the first time it has been used on people to assess how it performs.
Scientists have been able to develop the vaccine thanks to previous studies on the coronaviruses that caused the SARS and MERS epidemics in the past.
Scientists had already been working on a vaccine for MERS, a similar kind of virus, and that gave them a good springboard for starting to develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus, which has infected some 165,000 people worldwide and killed at least 6,500.
According to the World Health Organization, the number of detected Covid-19 cases worldwide so far totals about 165,000, with some 81,000 of them in China, where the virus originated. Other countries also have thousands of cases, including Italy (24,700), Iran (13,900), South Korea (8,100) and Spain (7,700), although Spanish authorities have announced that the number of diagnosed cases there has risen to 8,744 with 297 of those patients having died, putting it ahead of South Korea.