Cambridge biotech company developing coronavirus vaccine

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A Cambridge biotech company has been commissioned to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus sweeping through Wuhan, China.

The Cambridge-based Moderna has partnered with the National Institutes of Health, a division of the federal government, and received a grant to start the process.

So far, two people have tested positive for the virus in the United States - in Washington and Chicago - though another possible case has been flagged for investigation in Texas.

>> Coronavirus prevention, symptoms, treatment: What you need to know

The person in Washington has been quarantined and doctors are limiting interaction with the patient by using robots to prevent spreading the airborne infection any further.

In Chicago, the patient, a woman in her 60s, returned from China on Jan. 13 without showing any signs of illness, but three or four days later she called her doctor to report feeling sick.

The patient is doing well and remains hospitalized “primarily for infection control,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner.

Mass. Governor Charlie Baker says the Centers for Disease Control have the lead on much of the response to the Coronavirus and Massachusetts is working to stay up to date on the latest developments.

There are currently no threats so far in Massachusetts, but Moderna is already working on developing a vaccine to fight the virus.

“Our first study was against a strain of flu called H10, our second study was a strain of flu called H7 and we have since shown the mRNA technology can immunize people [and] can teach their immune system to recognize the virus, we’ve done it in other similar viruses,” said Tal Zaks, the Chief Medical Officer at Moderna.

Moderna’s staff says that, because of their successful track record, the national institutes of health gave them a grant to start developing a vaccine for the coronavirus.

“I’m gonna take the part of the virus that your body can recognize and I’m going to show it to your body and teach your body to make that protein so that your immune system can recognize it and say, ‘Hold on, I’ve never seen that before, let me make antibiotics against, it let me protect myself,’ - that’s how your immune system works,” said Zaks. “So now if you’re walking on the street and somebody sneezes on you and it happens to be this virus, your immune system is going to say, ‘Wait, I’ve seen that before.’"

Their goal in less than two months is to give the government a vaccine that is large enough to test in clinical trials.

According to the U.S. Department of Health, by this weekend authorities plan to route all passengers from Wuhan to Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago for screening. No passengers will arrive at Logan Airport directly from the ground-zero Chinese city.

Wednesday evening, all passengers on one flight from China were screened before being allowed to enter the airport as a precaution.

“I am reading about news it’s there in Singapore, it’s there in Japan, people traveling all over the world from China so the concern is there,” said Rohan Shah, who is flying to Southern Asia. “And people are thinking about it but you have to travel. It’s not that big yet but it can be big so yes it’s a concern. I kind of had a feeling that Boston-area would come up with something like that because they are like one of the leaders in the U.S. in pharmacy domain so it’s a good thing to know that Boston is doing such things."

This doesn’t mean, however, that in a couple of months Moderna will have a vaccine they can use to immunize the entire world. It just means they’ll have the technology to test it and prove that you can indeed immunize people.

There is no set timeline on when the coronavirus vaccine will be available. Their goal is to use that framework for any potential disease that comes up in the future.

So far, the virus has killed 41 people and has infected thousands of others.

[State health officials say coronavirus risk in Mass. is low]