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SARS Vaccine Could Be Stopgap Measure Against the New Coronavirus, Study Suggests

Vaccines developed, but never used, against SARS could offer hope in the search for treatments for the new coronavirus.

By Leslie NemoFebruary 3, 2020 9:15 PM
Vaccine Injection - Shutterstock
(Credit: REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock)


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The emerging coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has infected over 17,000 people in a matter of weeks. Researchers around the world are hunting for treatments, and a new analysis of the virus, published today, suggests several avenues for treatment. 

Disease-fighting agents from the immune systems of people infected with the coronavirus stopped the infection in a lab, as did those from horses that dealt with SARS. The emerging coronavirus is related to SARS, a disease that reached epidemic proportions in 2002 and 2003.

Additionally, it seems the new disease latches onto cells the same way SARS does. It’s possible that vaccines and treatments developed for SARS could be used against this new outbreak, too, a team of researchers from China suggest in a Nature study.

Ongoing Threat

Starting in mid-December, residents of Wuhan, China, started showing up to hospitals with fevers and coughs. As the cases piled up, doctors realized the illness wasn’t a typical flu virus. Health officials now refer to the disease as COVID-19 and it’s spread to over 23 nations.

Coronaviruses are a larger category of viral disease that includes SARS and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and are most often found in mammals.

Since mid-January, researchers around the world have had access to the entire genome of the virus to help develop a vaccine. But research into how the disease functions and compares to earlier outbreaks is still ongoing.

Finding a Treatment

The new update on potential treatments comes from samples taken from five Wuhan residents with the virus. DNA analysis showed their infections to be about 80 percent identical to SARS and 96 percent identical to a bat version of the virus. The latter suggests bats may be a natural host for the pathogen.

The researchers also extracted antibodies from the sick individuals to test if they were effective at combatting the disease. Antibodies are made by the immune system as a response to an infection, and the team found that these protective molecules stopped the virus when the two were mixed together in a lab dish.

The team also ran tests with antibodies from horses that were exposed to SARS and got similar results. Further testing revealed that SARS-CoV-2 connects to cells via the same receptors that SARS targets, indicating that blocking the virus’ access to this binding location could stop it from infecting a cell. 

Before any horse-derived antibodies are given to humans, researchers would first need to test and see if they might interfere with the patient’s own immune response, the authors note.

But because there are currently no treatments for COVID-19, the authors suggest SARS vaccines could be a temporary solution. A SARS vaccine was developed in response to the 2002 outbreak, but was never sold since public health measures got the disease under control before it was ready.

Some of the team members working on a vaccine for COVID-19 think they might have a version ready for trials in humans within a record-breaking three months — but that’s assuming they move as fast as possible and without any hiccups.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the up-to-date name of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.

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