Scientists say the eventual coronavirus vaccine could provide years of protection

Wednesday, 25th March 2020, 5:15 pm
Updated Wednesday, 25th March 2020, 5:16 pm

Scientists around the world are currently racing to find an effective vaccine against coronavirus - and they may have made a breakthrough.

Those studying the genetic code of the Covid-19 strain of coronavirus have said that it doesn't appear to be mutating very quickly, meaning that any vaccine developed against the virus may remain effective in the long term.

Speaking to the Washington Post, molecular geneticist Peter Thielen of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said that the strains currently affecting people in the USA only have around four to 10 genetic variations between the original strain that emerged in Wuhan, China.

"That's a relatively small number of mutations for having passed through a large number of people," he explained.

"At this point the mutation rate of the virus would suggest that the vaccine developed for SARS-CoV-2 would be a single vaccine, rather than a new vaccine every year like the flu vaccine."

Vaccine will take around 18 months

Thielen compared the eventual vaccine to ones used to immunise patients long-term, such as measles.

Flu vaccines, on the other hand, have to be administered more regularly. Stanley Perlman, of the University of Iowa, told the Post that coronavirus does not have the same advantages as flu does when it comes to mutating.

"Flu does have one trick up its sleeve that coronaviruses do not have - the flu virus genome is broken up into several segments, each of which codes for a gene," he said.

"When two flu viruses are in the same cell, they can swap some segments, potentially creating a new combination instantly - this is how the H1N1 'swine' flu originated."

While experts have said that small viral mutations can lead to outsized effects in clinical outcomes, they have pointed out that there's as yet been no indication of this happening with the coronavirus.

Death rates in places like Italy have been the effect of situational factors rather than mutations of the virus. Experts still estimate, however, that an effective coronavirus vaccine could take around 18 months to reach the public.

Coronavirus: the facts

What is coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect lungs and airways. It is caused by a virus called coronavirus.

What caused coronavirus?

The outbreak started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 and it is thought that the virus, like others of its kind, has come from animals.

How is it spread?

As this is such a new illness, experts still aren’t sure how it is spread. But, similar viruses are spread in cough droplets. Therefore, covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and disposing of used tissues straight away is advised. Viruses like coronavirus cannot live outside the body for very long.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS states that the symptoms are: a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath - but these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have the illness. Look out for flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose and a sore throat. It’s important to remember that some people may become infected but won’t develop any symptoms or feel unwell.

What precautions can be taken?

Washing your hands with soap and water thoroughly. The NHS also advises to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze; put used tissues in the bin immediately and try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell. Also avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean.

Government advice

As of Monday 23 March the prime minister has put the UK into lockdown and instructed all citizens to stay at home. People can only leave their homes to exercise once a day, go shopping for food and medication, travel for medical needs or to care for a vulnerable person, and travel to work only if essential. Police will be able to enforce these restrictions.

All non-essential shops will close with immediate effect, as will playgrounds, places of worship and libraries. Large events or gatherings of more than two people cannot go ahead, including weddings and celebrations. Funerals can only be attended by immediate family.

Children of separated parents can go between both parents' homes.

Anyone with a cough or cold symptoms needs to self-isolate with their entire household for 14 days.

The government has now instructed bars, restaurants, theatres and non-essential businesses to close and will review on a ‘month to month’ basis. Schools closed from Friday 20 March for the foreseeable future, and exams have been cancelled.

The over 70s or anyone who is vulnerable or living with an underlying illness are being asked to be extra careful and stay at home to self-isolate. People with serious underlying health conditions will be contacted and strongly advised to undertake "shielding" for 12 weeks.

For more information on government advice, please check their website.

Should I avoid public places?

You should now avoid public places and any non-essential travel. Travel abroad is also being advised against for the next 30 days at least, and many European countries have closed their borders.

What should I do if I feel unwell?

Don’t go to your GP but instead call NHS 111 or look online at the coronavirus service that can tell you if you need medical help and what to do next.

When to call NHS 111

NHS 111 should be used if you feel unwell with coronavirus symptoms, have been in a country with a high risk of coronavirus in the last 14 days or if you have been in close contact with someone with the virus.

Sources: World Health Organisation and NHS