Industry-university collaboration ‘key’ to coronavirus fight

Dutch virologist says partnerships are vital in race to develop vaccines

January 31, 2020
People on subway wearing surgical masks
Source: iStock

One of the scientists at the forefront of researching coronaviruses in the past few years has stressed how collaboration with industry will be key to quickly developing the tools to tackle the outbreak originating in China. 

Berend-Jan Bosch, associate professor of virology at Utrecht University, said that academics across the world were already working closely with companies in a bid to find the fastest way to develop a vaccine and other important tools.

But he also warned the world to keep up the focus on research into such viruses in the future even if this current crisis dies down.

On 30 January, the World Health Organisation declared a global public health emergency over the spread of the novel coronavirus – known as 2019-nCoV – that was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Academics and pharmaceutical firms are racing to produce a vaccine that can then be put into clinical trials as soon as possible, including major projects supported by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a multinational organisation backed by funders including the Wellcome Trust.

Data showing which research into coronaviruses in the past few years has had the highest citation impact also suggest that other areas of expertise could be crucial in quickly understanding the outbreak and its danger to humans.

According to statistics in Elsevier’s Scopus database of indexed research, from 2014 to 2018 some 2,700 papers were published worldwide with coronavirus in the title, abstract or as a keyword, with much of the research concentrating on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, an illness caused by a coronavirus first reported in 2012.

Countries and regions that have been central to helping produce the highest-impact research – apart from major nations like the US and mainland China – have included Saudi Arabia (where the majority of MERS cases have been reported) and the Netherlands, in particular Utrecht and Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Dr Bosch, who co-authored dozens of coronavirus papers over the period, said that his team’s work could prove helpful in producing a vaccine, but also in developing ways to establish how many people the virus affects overall, even where they do not show symptoms. 

Work by Dr Bosch’s team, in collaboration with Erasmus, contributed to developing tests that established the prevalence of MERS in the camel population, which in turn aided surveys of the disease in the human population.

“In the end you would like to determine the percentage of the population that has been infected by this [new] virus. Maybe there are many mild or even asymptomatic cases in China that have not yet been diagnosed, some of whom might have recovered in the meanwhile,” he said.

“It is imperative to know the total number of infections, symptomatic and asymptomatic, to estimate the morbidity and mortality.”

Dr Bosch added that he was already in contact with commercial partners that could help develop such tests for the new coronavirus, and that such partnerships were vital in the general battle against the outbreak.

“If something is going to make it into the clinic [soon] then it needs to be developed within a public-private partnership because academic research cannot do this on its own,” he said.

Looking forward, he also urged research into coronaviruses, and particularly those that have passed from animals to humans, to continue.

“If there is an emergency then people are very much aware of cross-species transmission and the societal and economical consequences, but once an epidemic is contained, things quickly go back to normal then people tend to forget about it,” Dr Bosch said.

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