Harvard joins coronavirus fight with $115M and a high-profile Chinese partner
For two months, as the novel coronavirus swelled from a few early cases tied to a Wuhan market to a global epidemic, most of the world’s focus and dollars have flowed toward emergency initiatives: building vaccines at a record pace, plucking experimental antivirals out of freezers to see what sticks and immunizing mice for new antibodies.
Now a new and well-funded collaboration between Harvard and a top Chinese research institute will play the long game. In a 5-year, $115 million initiative backed by China Evergrande Group, researchers from the Harvard Medical School, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Guangzhou Institute for Respiratory Health will study the virus in an effort to develop therapies against infections by the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, and to prevent new ones.
The Chinese side of the initiative is led by Zhong Nanshan, head of the Chinese 2019-nCoV Expert Taskforce and the scientist who isolated the SARS virus in 2003. He is also director-general of the China State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Diseases.
“Harvard Medical School is uniquely positioned to convene experts in virology, infectious disease, structural biology, pathology, vaccine development, epidemiology, and public health to confront this rapidly evolving crisis,” George Daley, dean of the Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.
The initiative will focus on five areas. That includes developing tests for rapid diagnosis, vaccines, antiviral treatments to shorten the duration of the disease and mitigate symptoms, and other treatments for patients with severe disease. Researchers will also try to understand how the body interacts with the virus. The hope is that they can find biomarkers that will tell doctors if the infection is worsening or will lead to life-threatening complications.
These areas represent the constellation of needs and unknowns for a virus public health officials increasingly fear will reach pandemic levels, and could become an annual infection like the flu. Although the virus may yet dissipate, experts have emphasized the need for long-term funding that can improve readiness for future outbreaks, a need Harvard underscored in its announcement.
The “response needs to be global, rapid, and driven by the best science,” Harvard provost Alan Garber said. “The lessons we learn from this outbreak should enable us to respond to infectious disease emergencies more quickly and effectively in the future.”
Diagnosis has proven to be a continual challenge throughout the virus’ spread. In Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province, the number of patients reporting symptoms rapidly outstripped the supply of nucleic acid testing kits used to confirm the presence of a virus. Delays in diagnosis meant delays in quarantine and treatment.
At the behest of Chinese doctors, officials moved to CT scans to detect pneumonia, a symptom of the infection, and then later using the testing kits as confirmation. But some infected patients show up negative in CT scans, and as the virus has spilled out beyond China’s borders, how to test patients in the fastest and most accurate manner has become an issue of global concern and a major point of discussion at the World Health Organization and the US Center for Disease Control.
Harvard has not said what forms of treatments they will investigate. Thus far, most of the treatments used are antivirals originally developed for other purposes – including remdesivir, the Gilead drug originally developed for Ebola and Marburg virus, and lopinavir, an HIV drug – but doctors have flung a wide range of speculative therapies hoping to see what sticks. That includes plasma treatments, antibodies other coronavirus patients developed in response to the virus and a traditional Chinese remedy drawn from extracts of Forsythiae fructus. The earliest drugs developed specifically for the virus are at least 5 months away from clinical trials.
Vaccines appear closer, with Moderna and the NIH gunning for a clinical trial to start in the spring. However, that uses a technology that has yet to produce an approved vaccine. Other efforts, such as GlaxoSmithKline’s and Clover’s new partnership, are using more traditional approaches but have longer timelines.