J&J jumping in on coronavirus vax work as disease continues its spread

Johnson & Johnson is joining the growing ranks of biopharmas, including the likes of Moderna and Gilead Sciences, in trying to create a speedy vaccine for the coronavirus out of China.

Over the weekend, we learned of a wider range and more deaths as the new virus, which appears to have come out of Wuhan, China, is doing what these diseases do best: spread. The causes of death have so far been reported as pneumonia, with other reports suggesting most of these have come from those with underlying medical conditions.

The emergence of a new virus is always a scary time, and researchers have been scrambling to try to assess how effective it is at spreading and how fatal it can prove to be in the general population.

All the while, the Chinese government is issuing a major crackdown on travel as cases pop up around the globe, currently from those who have been in the Wuhan region.

Biopharma has been just as quick to respond, with J&J telling CNBC today that it too is now working on trying to create a new vaccine ASAP.

Its chief scientific officer, Paul Stoffels, M.D., told the financial broadcaster: “We are comfortable that we can create a vaccine and scale it up,” saying that with the Ebola outbreak it took around half a year from having a virus construct to scaling up and bringing it to humans, and this also happened in about a year with the Zika virus.

How quick could they be this time around? “We have good hopes that we can further accelerate it, because we have the sequence, we have new technologies to produce these antigens and to make the constructs,” he explained to CNBC’s biotech and pharma reporter Meg Tirrell. “Maybe we can cut off another two to three months, but we better first do it before we promise.”

He said J&J would be using a “parallel approach with at least five different constructs,” which he says will help see “which part of the virus we can use to make an effective vaccine.”

He noted that they have been in touch with Chinese officials as to whether HIV drugs could help contain the spread, something other companies are also looking into.