• Scientists at the University of Plymouth are working on a vaccine to prevent future outbreaks of coronavirus.
  • The vaccine will stop future strains of the virus from jumping from animals to humans.
  • Other research teams are working on a human vaccine for coronavirus, but due to safety testing, it will not be available to the general public for at least a year.

UK scientists are working on a coronavirus vaccine aimed at preventing outbreaks similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers from the University of Plymouth have made progress in developing vaccines designed to prevent infections jumping from animals to humans. Scientists at The Vaccine Group (TVG), a university spinout company, are now looking to create a vaccine to prevent future human coronaviruses that have spread from animals.

Dr Michael Jarvis, TVG’s chief scientific officer, said: “As COVID-19 has shown, the spillover of disease from animals to humans can have a very high social, economic and commercial cost globally.

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“Naturally, there has been a swift move into funding the development of human vaccines and therapeutics, but to date we are not aware of any approaches to eliminate COVID-19 in the animal population to prevent future outbreaks or re-emergence of the disease.”

He added that the animal species involved in the recent emergence remains unclear, and that such a vaccine may be vital for control of COVID-19 as well as other emerging coronaviruses.

But as the researchers work to prevent future outbreaks, a global race is on to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. On Monday, American scientists administered the first doses of an experimental vaccine.

Scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle started a first-stage study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, of the potential vaccine by injecting healthy volunteers. Researchers said that because the vaccines do not contain the virus, there is no chance of participants getting infected.

However, even if everything goes well, a vaccine is not expected to be ready for widespread use for at least a year.

Meanwhile, scientists in various countries across the world are in different stages of testing potential vaccines in clinical trials. But the international community seems to be in agreement that a vaccine for COVID-19 will not be available for another 12-18 months.

University of Plymouth researchers have started work on a coronavirus vaccine working with the Shanghai Veterinary Research Institute and Kansas State University.

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Dr Jarvis said that developing vaccines for animals, rather than solely for humans, potentially tackles any future outbreaks at source.

He added: “Development of this particular vaccine has just been started and it is expected to be in animal studies before the end of the year.


“Although this will be too late for the current outbreak, the diversity of animal reservoirs and genetic variability of COVID-19 and related coronaviruses mean it could give rise to future pandemics.”

How do scientists develop vaccines for new viruses?

Vaccines work by fooling our bodies into thinking that we’ve been infected by a virus. Our body mounts an immune response, and builds a memory of that virus which will enable us to fight it in the future.

Viruses and the immune system interact in complex ways, so there are many different approaches to developing an effective vaccine. The two most common types are inactivated vaccines (which use harmless viruses that have been ‘killed’, but which still activate the immune system), and attenuated vaccines (which use live viruses that have been modified so that they trigger an immune response without causing us harm).

A more recent development is recombinant vaccines, which involve genetically engineering a less harmful virus so that it includes a small part of the target virus. Our body launches an immune response to the carrier virus, but also to the target virus.

Over the past few years, this approach has been used to develop a vaccine (called rVSV-ZEBOV) against the Ebola virus. It consists of a vesicular stomatitis animal virus (which causes flu-like symptoms in humans), engineered to have an outer protein of the Zaire strain of Ebola.

Vaccines go through a huge amount of testing to check that they are safe and effective, whether there are any side effects, and what dosage levels are suitable. It usually takes years before a vaccine is commercially available.

Sometimes this is too long, and the new Ebola vaccine is being administered under ‘compassionate use’ terms: it has yet to complete all its formal testing and paperwork, but has been shown to be safe and effective. Something similar may be possible if one of the many groups around the world working on a vaccine for the new strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is successful.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.