Infectious disease experts are to invest £20 million of UK Government funding to embark on an ambitious six-month plan to produce a vaccine for coronavirus.
The bid to develop a vaccine comes following hundreds of deaths from the global disease, with the death toll in China now at 361, and one more fatality recorded in the Philippines.
A further 2,829 new cases were confirmed by Chinese health authorities in the 24 hours to the morning of Monday 3 February, taking the total number of cases in the country to 17,205.
£20 million investment
The UK Government's £20 million investment will go to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global body aiming to fast-track a vaccine within six to eight months.
CEPI chief executive Dr Richard Hatchett said such a tight timescale was "unprecedented", and if the biologists are successful, additional time will still be required to test the vaccine more widely.
It would also need to secure sign-off from medical regulators before it could be distributed across the world.
Dr Hatchett said: “This is an extremely ambitious timeline - indeed, it would be unprecedented in the field of vaccine development.
"It is important to remember that even if we are successful - and there can be no guarantee - there will be further challenges to navigate before we can make vaccines more broadly available."
The huge investment will go towards funding the efforts of Dr Kate Broderick, a Scot based in California, who is working around the clock in an effort to create a coronavirus vaccine.
Dr Brokerick, who is a molecular geneticist at pharmaceutical company Inovio, told The Times: “We have the opportunity to save some lives on the basis that we do this as fast as we can.”
British citizens returning home from China are being held in quarantine at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral (Photo: Getty Images)
A global health emergency
The coronavirus outbreak has been categorised as a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation, with cases confirmed in several countries including the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan.
Most cases have been recorded in Hubei province, whose capital city Wuhan is the epicentre of the outbreak, while several countries, including Britain, have evacuated hundreds of their citizens from the infection zone.
Eleven more evacuees - comprising British citizens and their family members - arrived back in the country on Sunday 2 February to join the 83 people already in quarantine at Arrowe Park Hospital in Wirral.
The number of confirmed cases of infection increased to 14,380 at the weekend in China alone, while two people - a University of York student and one of their relatives - are being treated for the virus in the UK.
A ‘crucial moment’
Dr Hatchett said the funding from the government came at a “crucial moment” in the fight against the spread of coronavirus.
He said: “The rapid global spread and unique epidemiological characteristics of the virus are deeply concerning.
“Our hope is that, with our partners, we can get an investigational vaccine from gene sequencing of the pathogen through to clinical testing in 16 weeks.
“The earliest stage of phase one clinical trials, to establish the safety of investigational vaccines, would take around two to four months.”
CEPI is a global partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil society organisations to develop vaccines to stop future epidemics, and was formed in 2017 in response to the Ebola epidemic in west Africa.
It has kick-started four programmes into stemming coronavirus in the past two weeks, with the UK’s £20 million investment set to build on the previous £10 million ministers invested in the organisation in 2019.
Commenting on the investment, Health Secretary Matthew Hancock said: “The 20 million announced today will help our globally recognised vaccine development capabilities continue to develop new defences against emerging diseases, including coronavirus.”