Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the drug-making arm of Johnson & Johnson are working together on a potential vaccine for the new coronavirus, one of dozens of urgent efforts around the world to come up with a way to inoculate people against the virus that causes Covid-19.
Although experts say that none of the potential vaccines could likely be deployed for at least a year, the doctor leading the Boston hospital’s effort said Thursday that a vaccine is what “may actually be required to end this epidemic.”
Dr. Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, disclosed the collaboration with Janssen Pharmaceutical Cos. in a live-stream video presentation by medical experts hosted by Massachusetts General Hospital.
Beth Israel and Janssen have collaborated for more than a decade on vaccine programs for other illnesses, including Zika virus disease and HIV. They signed an agreement to work together on coronavirus on Jan. 31, Barouch said, just three weeks after Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus and posted it online. Financial terms haven’t been disclosed.
The lab and Janssen are using a common cold virus to deliver a coronavirus antigen into cells to stimulate the immune system. Janssen has used the same approach to make 2 million doses of a vaccine for Ebola that has yet to be licensed but has been provided to about 40,000 people in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The partners hope to begin testing the coronavirus vaccine on healthy people sometime in the fall.
Barouch’s lab is already testing multiple versions of the vaccine on mice, ferrets, and rhesus monkeys exposed to the coronavirus at a research facility working under contract in the Washington, D.C., area, Barouch said.
Dr. Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer for Johnson & Johnson, which has 135,000 employees worldwide, said the New Jersey-based corporation plans to “accelerate the experiment to come to a conclusion — do we have a vaccine, yes or no?”
If the answer is yes, Janssen has a plant in Leiden, Netherlands, prepared to manufacture 300 million doses a year in the first deployment of the vaccine, according to Hanneke Schuitemaker, head of viral vaccine discovery and translational medicine for the company.
The World Health Organization lists more than 30 vaccine candidates across the globe. Moderna, the Cambridge-based biotech, last month delivered an RNA-based vaccine it developed at record speed to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Testing of that experimental vaccine is supposed to start in humans this month. It will be the first clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine.
Nonetheless, Moderna’s chief executive, Stephane Bancel, told the Globe on Feb. 28 that it would be at least 12 to 18 months before the vaccine could be deployed.
Barouch, who is overseeing the rival effort, said it’s unlikely that any vaccine could be deployed for at least a year because of the time it takes to run clinical trials.
As a result, he told the Globe, “It is more likely there will be an approved therapeutic drug [to treat Covid-19] long before there will be a vaccine.”
There are no approved medicines for Covid-19, which emerged in China late last year and appears to be more lethal in the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. Several drug makers, including California-based Gilead Sciences and Japan’s Toyama Chemical, are testing medicines developed for other diseases as a possible coronavirus treatment.
Still, Barouch said it’s imperative that vaccine development efforts proceed as quickly as possible.
“The first reason is that we might actually need the vaccines to contain the epidemic when the vaccines are available because it’s possible that this epidemic will not just fizzle out," Barouch, who is also affiliated with the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, said at his laboratory in the Longwood medical area. “The second reason is that even if the epidemic does fizzle out, then it could come back.”
Barouch, a 47-year-old infectious disease specialist, is a veteran of efforts to develop vaccines for dangerous diseases.
His lab has collaborated with Janssen on developing experimental vaccines for HIV and Zika, both of which rely on the same approach of using a common cold virus to deliver an antigen into cells to promote immunity. Neither has been licensed yet.
Barouch’s laboratory, which employs about 60 researchers, learned on Friday, Jan. 10, that Chinese scientists had sequenced the genome of the new coronavirus. The sequence is a string of letters that takes up seven pages on Barouch’s computer and looks like gibberish to the uninitiated. Then Barouch and several researchers worked through the weekend to design potential antigens.
Ultimately, about two dozen employees in the lab have worked on the potential vaccine. Some of them travel back and forth to the Washington area, where the substances are being tested on animals.
Historically, drug companies are often reluctant to develop vaccines because such efforts are expensive and epidemics sometimes dissipate long before a vaccine can be approved.
But that might not happen with Covid-19, Barouch said, in part because some people with the disease appear to be spreading it even when they have only mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.
“That makes it much harder for traditional public health measures of contact tracing and isolation and quarantine,” he said.
Still, Barouch seemed optimistic, citing the success of vaccines against scourges ranging from smallpox to polio.
“History is on the side of vaccines to end viral epidemics,” he said.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.