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Harvard scientists to collaborate with those in China on $115 million coronavirus effort

A brainstorming meeting on how to combat the outbreak is set for next Monday at the university.

Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

Dozens of prominent scientists from Massachusetts universities, hospitals, and biotechs are expected to converge Monday on Harvard Medical School for a four-hour closed-door meeting to brainstorm potential ways to treat and prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The gathering is an outgrowth of a newly announced $115 million collaboration between Harvard scientists and researchers in China who are battling the disease. The novel coronavirus has infected more than 77,000 people in China and spread to other countries, raising fears of a pandemic on multiple continents.

“We’re at the center of this extraordinary biomedical ecosystem here in Boston,” George Q. Daley, dean of the medical school, said Monday, explaining why he wants Harvard to become a coronavirus research hub. “We really want to put together the best team to tackle the problem.”

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Daley said that scientists from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals, and local biotechs, including Moderna and Sherlock Biosciences, both of Cambridge, have been invited to the gathering, intended to set the effort in motion.

Scientists in China won’t be attending, of course, because of the travel ban imposed to halt the spread of the virus, which began in locked-down Hubei province. But they are expected to participate through a video conference.

Harvard announced a five-year collaboration on Monday between scientists from its medical school and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Disease. The director of the institute is Zhong Nanshan, the renowned pulmonologist and epidemiologist who in 2003 identified another novel pathogen, the coronavirus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

The collaboration will be bankrolled by China Evergrande Group, a Fortune Global 500 real estate company in China. The giant company helped finance the Evergrande Center for Immunologic Diseases, a joint program of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Daley said that top executives of China Evergrande Group e-mailed Harvard president Lawrence Bacow about a month ago and asked whether Harvard could help address the coronavirus outbreak.

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“Evergrande is honored to have the opportunity to contribute to the fight against this global public health threat,” said Hui Ka Yan, chairman of the China Evergrande Group, said in a statement.

Daley, who is leading the Harvard effort, said scientists in Massachusetts have already held two video conferences with Zhong’s researchers and several among themselves.

The dean has also invited prominent specialists from outside Harvard to participate, including Feng Zhang, a core institute member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who is well known for pioneering the development of gene editing tools; Ronald Corley, a professor of microbiology at the Boston University School of Medicine; and Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna Therapeutics.

Moderna is working on a messenger RNA vaccine for the coronavirus in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, with funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The first clinical batch of the investigational vaccine was completed about two weeks ago. The company said Monday night that it has shipped the first vials to the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to begin testing.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House press conference on Feb. 7 that he hoped early-phase clinical trials of Moderna’s experimental vaccine could begin within two-and-a-half months.

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Several other biotechs and pharmaceutical giants in the United States and elsewhere are also scrambling to try to develop a vaccine, treatments, and diagnostic tests.

Among those planning to attend Monday’s gathering is Rahul Dhanda, cofounder and chief executive of Sherlock Biosciences. Four weeks ago, his startup began scrambling to develop a rapid diagnostic test to determine whether someone has coronavirus. Two weeks into the effort, he got a call from Daley, asking Sherlock to join forces with the collaboration.

“It feels like we’re fulfilling the mission that we committed to” when the startup was launched less than a year ago," Dhanda said. “This is why we’re here.”


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.