Scientists have provided a ray of hope in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, saying that when a vaccine is eventually available, it would likely provide long-term protection.
Depending on how quickly a virus mutates, some vaccines have to be regularly updated, such a flu vaccines that have to be administered every year.
Other vaccines, such as for measles and chickenpox, provide protection for decades, or even a lifetime.
On Monday, Peter Thielen, a biologist with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said that it appears coronavirus mutates slowly, more like measles and chickenpox than the flu.
Peter Thielen (front), a biologist with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said that it appears coronavirus mutates slowly, more like measles and chickenpox than the flu
This electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19
‘When this virus was first sequenced in China, that information was helpful in starting the process to develop a vaccine,’ Thielen explained in a statement.
‘What we’re doing informs whether or not the virus is mutating away from that original sequence, and how quickly,’ he continued, describing his experiments to sequence the genome of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
‘Based on the mutation rate, early data indicates that this would likely be a single vaccine rather than one that needs to be updated each year, like the flu shot,’ he said.
Two other virologists, Stanley Perlman of the University of Iowa and Benjamin Neuman of Texas A&M University at Texarkana, told the Washington Post that the virus appears relatively stable.
‘The virus has not mutated to any significant extent,’ Perlman said.
‘Just one ‘pretty bad’ strain for everybody so far. If it’s still around in a year, by that point we might have some diversity,’ Neuman said.
Peter Thielen, front, and Tom Mehoke, biologists from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory prepare a hand-held DNA sequencer at the molecular diagnostics laboratory
Heba Mostafa, Assistant Professor of Pathology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, joins APL biologists Tom Mehoke, left, and Peter Thielen as the team initiates a sequencing of the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus
Studying mutations in the virus can also help scientists determine how long the virus may have gone undetected in an area, and can advise on what measures to put in place, such as the social-distancing efforts.
Experts say that the earliest a vaccine for coronavirus could be widely available is a year to 18 months.
Although vaccine trials are underway in the U.S., UK and elsewhere, time is needed to prove the shots safe and effective before they are rolled out to millions.
However, on Tuesday the Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment in the US for the coronavirus that has infected more than 50,000 Americans: blood plasma from people who have cleared the infection.
Blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients is rich in antibodies their immune system has developed to fight the infection.
Blood plasma donated from recovered patients can now be used as a treatment for people critically ill with COVID-19, the FDA said Tuesday. The method is already used in China, where recovered people like Dr Yong Yuefeng (pictured) have given plasma to treat others
China began using the century-old method to treat its patients last month, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that plasma would be tested there to treat the sickest of the state’s more than 25,000 coronavirus patients.
The treatment may be the best hope for critically ill COVID-19 patients while scientists work to develop new, specific treatments for the disease and test experimental drugs like chloroquine and remdesivir.
The treatment was used to fight off flu and measles outbreaks in the days before vaccines, and tried more recently against SARS and Ebola and it just might work for COVID-19, too.
Doctors in China attempted the first COVID-19 treatments using what the history books call ‘convalescent serum’ – today, known as donated plasma -from survivors of the new virus.
Now a network of US hospitals that has been waiting on permission from the Food and Drug Administration to begin large studies of the infusions both as a possible treatment for the sick and as vaccine-like temporary protection for people at high risk of infection will be able to begin administering it.
There’s no guarantee it will work.