Updated Feb. 14, 2020

Dr. Dan Barouch knows the long, hard path to creating a vaccine. Barouch, the director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has led groundbreaking research regarding vaccines for HIV and the Zika virus.

Now, his team is charging headlong into a race to find a vaccine for the new coronavirus.

“The generation and testing of vaccines can occur much more quickly nowadays than it could 10 or 20 years ago,” Barouch said. “There appears to be a greater desire on the part of public health authorities, scientists and physicians to generate vaccines very quickly for these types of outbreaks.”

Disease trackers at Johns Hopkins University have found that as of Feb. 14, 2020, more than 64,400 people have fallen ill with the novel coronavirus worldwide and more than 1,300 have died, mostly in China.

A little over a month after the virus was identified in Wuhan, China, Chinese officials released the genetic sequence of the virus. The data was critical to unleashing research around the world and it triggered a fast response.

“The speed is unprecedented,” said Barouch. “That's partially because of more rapid data sharing.”

While some aspects of designing a vaccine can piggyback on previous efforts, Barouch said because this virus has never been seen before, a lot of the work has to be done from scratch.

Boston-based scientists like Barouch are part of a global effort to both research the virus and help develop a vaccine.

“We don’t know exactly which vaccine ultimately is going to prove the fastest, the best, the most durable or the safest — and ultimately, the most effective. So some level of working in parallel is very much beneficial,” Barouch said. “The hope is that everyone is openly sharing what they’re doing so everyone can benefit from each other, because ultimately we’re all in a race against the virus and not against each other.”

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 — also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 — isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like.
Courtesy of NIAID-RML

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) gathered over 300 scientists and researchers at its headquarters in Geneva to determine urgent priorities and coordinate global research efforts on COVID-19. They discussed the WHO’s research and development “blueprint” for the virus — a strategy to accelerate response to sudden outbreaks that includes developing drugs and vaccines.

While coronaviruses are not new to virologists, the spread of this novel strain has created alarm because it appears to be highly contagious and there are many unknowns about how it spreads. But most Americans face a far greater threat from a different virus, one that has an annual vaccine — the seasonal flu.

“I want to emphasize that we take this [outbreak of a new virus] seriously, but it’s important to keep it in context with what’s actually here,” said Dr. Robert Colgrove, interim chief of Infectious Diseases at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. “The risks, so far, in the United States and in Boston, in particular, of this novel virus are extraordinarily low compared to the risk of influenza virus.”

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed a 14th case of the novel coronavirus in the U.S.

So far inthe 2019-20 season, the CDC estimates there have been between 26 million and 36 million flu illnesses nationwide, and between 14,000 and 36,000 flu deaths. Influenza is among the leading causes of vaccine-preventable deaths in the U.S. Right now in Massachusetts, the severity of the flu remains high, according to state updates.

Forty-five percent of adults were estimated to have been vaccinated against the flu last flu season, according to the CDC. This is an increase from the year before, but short of the government’s target of 70% for overall coverage.

Despite the data, people often ignore the annual flu risks. Colgrove had a theory why.

“We as humans tend to pay a lot of attention to things that are unfamiliar, and overestimate the risks of unfamiliar things and underestimate the risks of familiar things,” Colgrove said. “I’ve been arguing for years that we should take flu more seriously and I think it took pandemic flu and avian flu to really get on people’s radar. But then that level of concern has then sunk back. It’s just one of those familiar risks.”

Still, whether it’s for preventing the coronavirus or the flu, he offered the same advice.

“If everything else is erased from your mind, the one thing that you should remember is: Wash your hands,” Colgrove said. “That is, by a large measure, quantitatively, the best and most important thing that people can do.”

Colgrove urged people to listen to what public health professionals say instead of rumors and panic on social media. That panic helped fuel a mad dash to obtain medical masks, triggering a widely reported global shortage. Colgrove cautioned against healthy people using masks.

“Not only will that not help them, but it depletes the critical supplies of masks where they’re needed. People who need to go out when they’re ill — it makes sense for them to put on masks,” Colgrove said.

Meanwhile, it’s expected to be a year or more until any coronavirus vaccine is ready to be manufactured. That may be after this current outbreak dies down or is brought under control. But even if a vaccine is not part of ending an epidemic, Barouch said, experience with vaccines like the one for Zika show that vaccines made for one epidemic of a disease can be very useful for a return epidemic.

And many experts say it's quite possible this novel coronavirus will return.