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Coronavirus vaccine long way off

Any vaccine for the fast-spreading 2019 novel coronavirus is unlikely to take shape in the near future, experts said Sunday, citing the rapid mutational characteristic of the ribonucleic acid virus as what makes speedy pharmaceutical countermeasures impossible.

“It would take more than a year even if the government allows all fast-track clearance for drug development,” a vaccine company employee told The Korea Herald.

No vaccine has been developed for Middle East respiratory syndrome disease to this day, for instance, five years since it hit Korea in 2015.

“Coronaviruses are highly mutational because they are RNA viruses, which means they would constantly transform to outlive the vaccine, making it hard to crack the code that kills it,” the source said, “By the time the vaccine is ready, the virus could naturally have dissipated.”

There is also low possibility that the same coronavirus will recur, meaning there is no clear return on investment for pharmaceutical companies to dive in to the one-off project.

Currently, doctors are using existing treatments to assuage the symptoms of 2019 n-CoV, such as pneumonia and respiratory complications.

US companies AbbVie and Gilead Sciences are repositioning their HIV drug ritonavir and Ebola drug remdesivir, respectively, as possible treatments to the 2019 n-CoV. These drugs are being shipped to China to be clinically tested, having shown inhibitory effects against the coronavirus.

A number of biotech companies in the US are reportedly undergoing preclinical trials of possible vaccines: Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Vir Biotechnology, Novavax, Moderna, Geovax, Johnson & Johnson and Vaxart are working on preclinical stages of different molecules while Regeneron is in phase 1 stage for a MERS vaccine.

The number of patients confirmed with the 2019 n-CoV globally amounted to more than 14,500 as of Sunday morning, with China being the heaviest-hit region as the epicenter of the virus.

As a single country, China has 14,390 confirmed patients and 304 recorded deaths, so far. At least 27 countries have been affected, with the first death outside of China reported in the Philippines as of Sunday afternoon.

Korea has 15 confirmed patients, a number that has gradually grown since the first confirmed case two weeks ago on Jan. 20.

The Korean government has operated chartered flights to evacuate nearly 700 Korean nationals residing in Wuhan, China, the origin of the coronavirus.

These Koreans are under a two-week quarantine at government-operated facilities in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, and Asan, South Chungcheong Province, under close medical watch for symptoms.

In the meantime, sales of masks and hand sanitizers have skyrocketed in Korea, with manufacturers of these products seeing as much as a 129.4 percent leap in stock price.

By Lim Jeong-yeo (