Researchers at the Institut Pasteur in Paris have become the first in Europe to fully sequence the genome of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus – putting the Institut at the forefront of developing a vaccine for the virus.


As of the 4th February 2020, the Coronavirus 2019-nCoV, originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has killed at least 426 people, exceeding the 349 mainland fatalities from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-03, which killed nearly 800 globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a state of global health emergency.


As the incidence of the disease continues to climb, surpassing 20,000 infected in mainland China, labs worldwide are racing to study the virus’ pathogenesis, develop animal models of the infection and most importantly, produce a vaccine for the pathogen.


Virologists in China who first isolated the virus found that it enters human cells through the same molecular receptor as the coronavirus that causes SARS. The Institut Pasteur, an instrumental player in tackling SARS and the related Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), is spearheading efforts for vaccine development based on the valuable lessons of the past. “At the end of August, we could enter clinical trials [for a coronavirus vaccine] and, provided all goes well, obtain a vaccine candidate within 20 months,” says Christophe D’Enfert, a scientific director with the Institute.


Here’s the latest news on the progress being made by the Institut Pasteur.


24 January

The French Ministry of Health confirms the first three cases of patients infected with the coronavirus in France – two in Paris and one in Bordeaux. That same evening virologists at the Institut Pasteur begin sequencing the genome and initiate the process of culturing the positive samples for 2019-nCoV detected in France.


27 January

The culture has already grown. The rapid growth of the culture may be explained by “the high viral load in the samples or by the quality of the samples,” notes Vincent Enouf, deputy director of the French National Reference Centres (CNR) at the Institut Pasteur.


29 January

The Institut Pasteur becomes the first body in Europe to fully sequence the genome of 2019-nCoV.


30 January

France announces its own test to diagnose cases of coronavirus. The results can be communicated “within hours”. “We will disseminate the reagents so that the laboratories of the Regional Health Agencies can, in turn, use the technique in case of new suspicions,” explains the Institut Pasteur’s Sylvie Behillil. Later that day, the General Directorate of Health (DGS) confirms the sixth case in France.


31 January

Now that the Institut Pasteur has access to 2019-nCoV, their specialized task force can set out to fight the virus. They will focus on four main areas: serology, development of specific treatments, vaccination and viral pathogenesis.


The Institut Pasteur is not alone. The world is anxious to learn more about the outbreak and teams of researchers worldwide have ambitious plans to make a potential candidate ready for testing within weeks.


The Norwegian Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) will invest USD 11 million to support three programmes led by the companies Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Moderna Therapeutics and the University of Queensland. The National Institutes of Health in Maryland, the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia in Spain and Clover Biopharmaceuticals in China are also in the running. Among Big Pharma, efforts are being led by Johnson & Johnson, which is employing technology similar to that used to produce another Ebola vaccine.


Read our 2018 interview with Institut Pasteur President Stewart Cole here