The recent coronavirus outbreak has left scientists racing against time to find a vaccine or cure for the infection. Professor SS Vasan is an Indian-origin scientist in Australia who is reportedly very close to the development of a vaccine against the virus.
The professor, along with a group of other scientists, have for the first time successfully grown a batch of the virus, outside of China, in an amount sufficient enough to be studied. The findings of the studies will then be used for developing a vaccine that will protect against the virus.
Vasan holds a BE and MSc in Chemistry from BITS Pilani and an MSc in Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru. He works as the Dangerous Pathogens Team Leader at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia. He also happens to be the principal investigator of this project.
Along with other scientists, Vasan was selected by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). CEPI is a “public-private coalition” based in Norway, which aims to curb epidemics by speeding up the vaccine development process.
It was decided that the work would take place at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL). This high-containment facility located in the city of Geelong in Australia is one of only six facilities in the world that has clearance to deal with such high risk pathogens. In 2014, following a sporadic ‘outbreak’ of the MERS causing virus which affected hundreds of people, samples from across the world were sent to this lab.
The lab had been opened following the SARS pandemic years prior and has been at the forefront of studying the family of coronaviruses which are responsible for both SARS and MERS and now the novel Coronavirus (nCoV 2019).
The goal of the research being undertaken is to identify key characteristics of the virus and gain a better understanding of how it functions. This information will then be used to create a vaccine accordingly.
Researchers at Doherty Institute isolated the virus from an infected individual’s sample. This was then grown in a lab environment where it will now be used for further studies.
According to scientists, including Professor Vasan, by isolating the virus outside an infected individual, it makes it easier for them to observe and study the virus. This would in turn potentially allow them to develop vaccines quickly.
Since nCoV shares a lot of similarities with the viruses which caused SARS and MERS, most individuals who are infected with this virus present with similar symptoms to these diseases. A cluster of pneumonia-like symptoms were first noticed in December 2019 in China’s Wuhan city. Within a span of almost two months, it has spread to over 20 countries with over 20,000 cases having been reported worldwide, a majority of which have been from China.
World Health Organisation (WHO) officials declared the outbreak a public health emergency in January.