SARS treatments could help with the new coronavirus. Why were they shelved?

February 18, 2020, 10:25 PM UTC

On Tuesday, Sanofi became the latest company to join the hunt for a vaccine for the new coronavirus. The French drug giant is teaming up with the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) arm to create a product that, it hopes, can make it to clinical trials in the next 12 months.

That brings the number of firms developing either a vaccine or antiviral to fight the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease now known as COVID-19, to at least a dozen. Other drug makers in the battle include Johnson & Johnson (which is also working with BARDA), Gilead, GlaxoSmithKline, Moderna, Inovio, and Novavax, as well as various public medical institutes.

Some of these firms are testing out new models of fighting the coronavirus. But at other companies, including Sanofi, researchers are essentially trying to advance therapies that were in development nearly two decades ago to combat the SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2003—but which were eventually shelved or put on the back burner. And that may provide a crucial lesson in the importance of funding proactive, rather than reactive, vaccine science.

Coronavirus is not a specific disease, it’s a family of pathogens that can cause everything from the common cold to more serious respiratory ailments such as SARS and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). The iteration of coronavirus currently wreaking havoc across China is, according to researchers, a close family member to the strain which caused SARS.

In fact, the international body tasked with officially naming the new, novel coronavirus dubbed it “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)” last week because of the similarities. To avoid confusion, public health officials are continuing to call the disease associated with the pathogen COVID-19.

“Public health can provide science and evidence, but then it has to rely on the resources that are available,” Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, told Fortune. “SARS petered out, and then it lost funding.”

In other words, once the SARS outbreak appeared containable (and contained), the urgency of creating a vaccine died down. Sanofi’s own revived project is one example of that. The company’s would-be vaccine was shelved, as was another SARS vaccine from the Baylor College of Medicine and its partners.

What makes that kind of freeze frustrating during new outbreaks is that such treatments, if advanced to clinical trials and the licensing stage, could potentially cross-protect against viruses which have evolved from their original form.

Part of this has to do with the complicated nature of vaccine and anti-bacterial drug development. Such research is inherently preventive in nature (and thus may not garner the same funding or focus as other types of drugs). Also, it’s challenging to telegraph the future evolution of a pathogen, or to create a therapy that can prevent or treat most potential forms of a bug.

But the fact that companies like Sanofi estimate it could take at least a year—if not several—for a vaccine to reach the market underscores the opportunity of seeing a treatment through to the finish line even as an outbreak wanes.

That’s something worth considering in light of this outbreak, which “is the third coronavirus that has become transmissible and lethal,” said Rizzo, referencing SARS and MERS.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Can you catch it twice? Answers to 5 pressing coronavirus questions
Why China is still so susceptible to disease outbreaks
—Bernard Arnault was briefly the world’s richest man. Then coronavirus struck
Will summer kill the coronavirus?
—My boss wants me to travel during the coronavirus. Do I have to go?

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