The Trump administration accelerated efforts to contain the threat of the coronavirus from China on Tuesday, saying it will direct funding to French drugmaker Sanofi in the search for an effective vaccine and test whether therapies for SARS or related illnesses can be targeted against the deadly new threat.
The rush for a vaccine came as the illness dubbed COVID-19 continued to rattle nerves around the globe, including on Wall Street. Stocks for companies in Apple Inc.’s supply chain were weighed down by the bellwether iPhone-maker’s warning it might not meet its quarterly revenue forecast because of supply problems and lower demand in China, where the virus originated and where authorities are still trying to get a handle of the crisis.
The pace of new infections in China has appeared to slow in recent days, though the World Health Organization said the trend “must be interpreted very cautiously” and it is working “night and day” to prepare other countries for transmission.
Hoping to deliver a vaccine, the Department of Health and Human Services said it will partner with Sanofi Pasteur, a unit of the French drugmaker, to produce a genetic match to the proteins of the new coronavirus. Those proteins will be mixed with a virus that’s harmless to humans, creating “antigens” that stimulate the immune system and can be separated and used to develop a vaccine.
“Using this proven technology, we can pivot immediately to address this new global health threat,” said Rick Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).
HHS officials are also working with Janssen Research and Development, a part of Johnson & Johnson, to identify medicines that may treat COVID-19 or reduce the severity for those already infected.
Right now there is no proven vaccine or treatment for the coronavirus traced back to Wuhan, in the Hubei Province of China.
WHO officials said that as of Tuesday, China had reported nearly 73,000 cases and 1,850 deaths.
The daily count of new cases fell below 2,000 for the first time since Jan. 30, though scientists say it’s too early to predict the arc of the outbreak and officials are grappling with thorny cases elsewhere.
Disease trackers are trying to figure out how an 83-year-old American woman contracted the virus overseas. She tested positive in Malaysia after disembarking from the MS Westerdam cruise ship in Cambodia, raising questions about whether others on the ship were infected as well.
The fast-moving crisis had countries around the globe scrambling to get ahead of the threat.
Although it has had only three confirmed cases, Russia said Tuesday it will impose a temporary entry ban this week on all Chinese nationals, and suspended all train service to China and North Korea and closed its borders with China and Mongolia. Moscow has also halted work visas for Chinese citizens and blocked Chinese students studying in Russia from returning after a school holiday.
Germany, which has deep and growing trading ties with China, said Tuesday it was sending a second shipment of medical aid supplies to China to help fight the coronavirus epidemic. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the government would send nearly 9 tons of aid supplies, including protection gear and disinfectants.
And in China itself, citizens were mourning the news that Dr. Liu Zhiming, who was on the front lines in the early fight against the epidemic at the hospital he ran in Wuhan’s Wuchang district, became at least the seventh Chinese health worker to die of the COVID-19 disease. Another 1,700 doctors and nurses have reportedly become sick fighting the flu strain.
Surging cases
In Japan, multiple countries are following the U.S. lead and evacuating passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which is docked near Yokohama. Authorities reported 88 new cases on the ship Tuesday, meaning the total has surged beyond 500 passengers and crew amid recriminations over the decision to quarantine people aboard the ship.
“I don’t want to be pejorative against cruise ships, but if there’s one thing you don’t want to do right now is to take a cruise in Asia,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. evacuated over 300 passengers — 14 of whom had tested positive — from the Diamond Princess after days of indecision that appeared to let COVID-19 spread through the docked, sealed-off vessel.
“Clearly, there’s been more transmission than expected on the ship. The authorities in Japan are adjusting to that reality now and taking the necessary public health measures with other countries to evacuate people and deal with their follow-up in a different way,” said Mike Ryan, director of WHO’s emergencies program. “It’s very easy in retrospect to make judgments on public health decisions made at a certain point.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there are still over 100 U.S. citizens on the Diamond Princess or in hospitals in Japan. The CDC on Tuesday said those people will be required to wait 14 days without having symptoms or a positive coronavirus test result before being allowed to fly back to the U.S.
If they show up in the U.S. prematurely they will be put into mandatory quarantine, the agency said.
The vast majority of people on the Diamond Princess do not have COVID-19, though it is the biggest cluster of cases outside of China.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, again blasted China’s response on Tuesday and reiterated his belief the virus could have originated not in an urban animal market but in a high-level Chinese laboratory in the Wuhan area.
The senator has faced criticism for floating the theory, given that scientists believe the virus most likely transferred to humans from animals. Mr. Cotton cited reports that found some of the early cases of COVID-19 late last year had no nexus to the market.
“I don’t know where this virus originated. Natural causes somewhere other than that food market is still the most likely hypothesis,” Mr. Cotton told radio host Hugh Hewitt, noting U.S. researchers from the CDC are still waiting the promised clearance from Beijing to arrive in force to study the outbreak inside China.
“The Chinese Communist Party needs to be transparent about exactly what transpired in Wuhan in the November-December time frame. And the way to do that is to open itself up completely to a team of international scientists to study the matter,” Mr. Cotton said.
WHO officials — and President Trump — have avoided criticizing China, saying Beijing taking unprecedented steps to thwart a wider global outbreak once it realized the scope of the problem on its hands. Many say privately that keeping lines of communication open with China’s Communist leadership is critical to the international effort to halt the epidemic.
Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus also lauded Singapore’s effort to stop COVID-19, as the case tally on the island city-state climbed to 81.
“We are very impressed with the efforts they are making to find every case, follow up with contacts, and stop transmission,” Mr. Tedros said. “Singapore is leaving no stone unturned.”
The U.S. government says it wants to be able to prevent new cases altogether.
HHS will provide expertise and reallocate money to Sanofi to assist its pursuit of a vaccine. Meanwhile Janssen, which is also working with HHS on a vaccine, is examining whether compounds that showed promise against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) may work against the new coronavirus.
“This is the third coronavirus to emerge and cause severe respiratory disease in humans within 18 years, and there are still no proven therapies to treat this disease,” BARDA’s Mr. Bright said. “In partnering with Janssen, BARDA is breaking this barrier to protect against this, as well as the next, coronavirus outbreak. This partnership may accelerate discovery and development of a new potentially lifesaving medicines for people with coronavirus infections.”
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