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NIH Lab Races To Create Coronavirus Vaccine In Record Time


All right. We have some more now on the coronavirus, this time from China. Today, Chinese officials reported that they found almost 900 new cases of the virus. That means that more than 75,000 people there are infected. All around the world, scientists are working on ways to fight this virus. And at the National Institutes of Health, they are trying to create a vaccine. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein got to look around.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Kizzmekia Corbett pulls open a big freezer door at the NIH Vaccine Research Center and slides out a frosty metal tray.

KIZZMEKIA CORBETT: So this is a minus-80 freezer. And we have all of our beautiful coronavirus proteins.

STEIN: One of these is what's called a spike protein. It kind of looks like a claw that sticks out from the surface of the new coronavirus so the virus can pry its way into cells and infect people.

CORBETT: In this box, there's the 2019 N coronavirus spike protein.

STEIN: In those little vials?

CORBETT: In these little vials.

STEIN: That's what you want here?

CORBETT: That is exactly what we want here (laughter).

STEIN: They want it because that's what scientists are targeting to try to make a vaccine.

CORBETT: From a vaccine perspective, what we want to do is essentially block that spike protein.

STEIN: So Corbett and her colleagues created an experimental vaccine to do just that, made out of a sequence of genetic code that carries the instructions for the spike protein.

CORBETT: We're delivering the genetic code for the protein in the hopes that it tells the body to react by creating an immune response to just that protein and protect against novel coronavirus.

STEIN: Corbett slides the protein tray back into the freezer, latches the door and pulls off her rubber gloves.

CORBETT: Today is actually a really exciting day for you to be here.

STEIN: Turns out, the scientists have already started injecting this experimental coronavirus vaccine into mice and just today are getting the first blood sample from the animals.

CORBETT: So that's pretty exciting (laughter).

STEIN: Why is that exciting?

CORBETT: Because this will be kind of the first indication of whether we are eliciting the types of immune responses that we had planned to.

STEIN: Whether it'll work.

CORBETT: Whether it might work, yes.

STEIN: As her colleagues rush to purify and ship samples of the virus' spike protein to other scientists around the country, Corbett takes me to another room in the lab.

CORBETT: This is where some other magic happens.

STEIN: This is where Corbett's team will start testing the antibodies the vaccine makes the mice make using something called pseudoviruses, harmless viruses created in the lab that can mimic the ability of the coronavirus to infect human cells.

CORBETT: If we mix our pseudoviruses with serum from mice that got our spike vaccine and the virus doesn't get into the cell, then we've successfully created an antibody response that is productive at blocking the virus from getting into the cell.

STEIN: As one of Corbett's colleagues thaws some of those pseudoviruses, Corbett explains that it will take at least two rounds of injections of the mice to really start to see how well it's working in the animals.

CORBETT: That is exactly what we're waiting for.

STEIN: Several other experimental vaccines are also being developed against the new coronavirus. But Corbett and her colleagues are confident theirs will work and could be ready first. In fact, Corbett's boss, Barney Graham, says they hope to start injecting it into people within just a few weeks to make sure it's safe.

BARNEY GRAHAM: That would be unprecedented, from the original discovery of a virus to starting a phase-1 trial. That would be a very fast pace.

STEIN: But Graham cautions that even if the vaccine looks safe, it would still take months to prove it's effective in people, and probably at least a couple of years to get the vaccine approved. So while it may not help much with the current outbreak, the vaccine could be valuable in the future.

GRAHAM: If it becomes a virus that comes back year after year, like the flu does, then the vaccine would be a useful thing to have to reduce the amount of disease caused by this virus.

STEIN: Rob Stein, NPR News.


Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.