The new corona virus – reactions of leading European researchers

At a time of dramatic news of widespread infections in China from the new corona virus, COVID-19, virologists in the top European institutes are intensively working to understand more about the novel disease.

Update 24 February 2020

In the last two days, an increasing number of COVID-19 cases has been confirmed in various countries around the world, e.g. South Korea and Iran.

In the EU, the Italian Ministry of Health has confirmed cases in some regions in Northern Italy and extraordinary measures are being taken to limit the outbreak.
ECDC is closely monitoring the situation and assessing the overall risk for the EU/EEA.

 


What do we know about COVID-19? What developments should we expect?  How can Europe be best prepared? The team of the European Science-Media Hub gathered insights from leading European scientists in top institutes including the French Pasteur Institute, the German Charité and the Italian Instituto Superiore di Sanità. The majority of the virologists were surprised regarding the high number of infections and the speed of viral transmission.

Professor Giovanni Rezza, MD, Director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Roma, ItalyProfessor Giovanni Rezza, MD, Director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Roma, Italy: “Actually, I did not expect another coronavirus, similar but not identical to the SARS-CoV, to emerge in mainland China less than 20 years after the SARS crisis. But, unfortunately, it happened. It means that cross-species passage, probably from a bat or through intermediate hosts, was efficient, and then the virus became immediately transmissible from person to person. What impressed me, is the speed of viral transmission, since in a few weeks, several generations of cases occurred in the city of Wuhan.

Dr Victor Corman, Lead of the Working group “Virus diagnostics, clinical virology, ecology and evolution of zoonotic viruses” at the Institute for Virology, Charité , Berlin, Germany Dr Victor Corman, Lead of the Working group “Virus diagnostics, clinical virology, ecology and evolution of zoonotic viruses” at the Institute for Virology, Charité, Berlin, Germany:

Having in mind similar outbreaks in the past the high number of infections was astonishing. I did not expect so many infections”.

Where are we in terms of outbreak development did we reach the peak?

The experts explained that it is difficult to predict the future of the epidemic at this time and underlined the need of more accurate information. Rezza commented: “In the affected areas of China the epidemic curve rose very rapidly, but more accurate information is needed on temporal trends (most curves are based on dates of case notification and not on onset of symptoms). In the rest of the world, clusters of local transmission have been reported, especially in South-East Asia, but we have small clusters of cases also in Europe (in Germany, and to a lesser extent also in France and the UK). I do hope the latter clusters will be immediately controlled. But I do think that the future of the epidemic will depend on how much the Chinese authorities will be able to contain the epidemic foci, especially in their epicentre (i.e., Wuhan city)”. Dr Corman commented that the peak in cases has not yet been reached, and expects further cases both inside and outside China.

European action

A number of EU research and preparedness actions are underway in Europe.  When asked whether Europe was prepared to deal with the novel corona virus, Professor Rezza noted, “EU member states should better coordinate their efforts. […] Europe should maintain a very high level of attention. […] I do think we should be prepared for the worst scenario, even though I still do hope this will not happen. […] It is important:
1) to support China in the effort to contain the epidemic;
2) to reinforce our surveillance and control measures;
3) to support developing/resource poor countries to set up early warning systems to identify initial chains of transmission
”.

Speaking from the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre on 10 February 2020, European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said: “As the coronavirus outbreak affects more and more countries, coordination and cooperation need to be our main focus. Now is the time to join forces in order to stop this epidemic. It is crucial that the entire international community focus on preparedness and response efforts to fight the coronavirus, keeping international solidarity in mind.”

Dr Vincent Enouf, Deputy Director of National Reference Center of Institut Pasteur, FranceDr Vincent Enouf, Deputy Director of the National Reference Center of Institut Pasteur, France: “We are using a European platform for exchanging information on the virus between laboratories called EVAg (European Virus Archive – GLOBAL).

This is a tool that helps collaboration and data exchange, allowing us to work together and find solutions”.

Dr Corman added that, in general, there needs to be “more investment in infrastructure and more spending on diagnostic labs and training of experts in general, in order to be better prepared in times of crisis”. As for the current situation, Dr Corman believes that “we are on the right track”.

Vaccination

Regarding whether there is a potential vaccine in sight, Dr Enouf explained : “At the Pasteur Institut, we have a vaccinology platform led by Frédéric Tanguy where we are working towards a vaccine. The first clinical tests might take place in maybe 6-8 months’ time, but certainly not before”. Professor Rezza specified, “There are many groups working on vaccines against this novel coronavirus in the world. As far as I know, the US NIH is funding research in the field and collaborating with several private companies to develop a candidate vaccine in a short time. In Europe there are several groups working on coronavirus vaccines R&D. Of course I am aware of a partnership between the Italian based Advent IRBM (a private research centre) and the University of Oxford (the Jenner Institute) […]. However, most experts and the WHO state that a vaccine will not be available before one year”.

Citizens are encouraged to seek factual advice and information from reputable resources such as the European Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation.

*The interviews were completed in the period 12-13.February 2020

An outbreak of a newly identified corona virus (2019-nCoV) was declared in the city of Wuhan, China at the end of December 2019. This is a newly identified strain of a large family of viruses that had not previously been detected in humans, causing acute respiratory syndrome. The associated disease is named COVID-19. In January 2020, the World Health Organisation declared a public health emergency of international concern as infections spread rapidly within China. Cases have also been confirmed outside of the country including regions of Europe.

Useful links:
European Commission research actions on Coronavirus
WHO myth busters
Novel Coronavirus Outbreak – IPOL document

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