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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus—and a Potential Preventive Vaccine

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The coronavirus has made headlines as it has spread from China to other parts of the world. To help stop the global outbreak in its tracks, Johnson & Johnson is already hard at work on a potential preventive vaccine.

oronavirus. You may not have heard of this term just a few weeks ago, but it's now hard to ignore with the news of its spread.

In just a few short weeks, this new strain of a group of viruses called coronaviruses that was first detected in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, has turned into a COVID-19 outbreak, with growing numbers of confirmed cases and deaths in China.

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Paul Stoffels, M.D., Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson

The first case was reported in China in late December, and since then, people in several countries have been diagnosed with this strain of coronavirus, from Thailand to the United States.

Officials are still learning about how it's transmitted and its source, but one thing is clear: working fast to stop this virus is critical.

To help stay ahead of a potential pandemic, Johnson & Johnson has mobilized quickly to initiate a project to develop a preventive coronavirus vaccine with the potential to protect people against the disease. The company is also expanding on a recent partnership with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, to advance the vaccine program and screen its library of existing antiviral compounds with the goal of identifying those with antiviral activity against COVID-19.

As the outbreak continues to evolve, we sat down with Paul Stoffels, M.D., Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson, to learn about the latest facts surrounding the coronavirus—and how scientists at the company are working in real time to help avoid a global health crisis.

Q:

What exactly is a coronavirus, and how does this outbreak compare to the SARS outbreak in 2003?

A:

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans, which is what the current outbreak is.

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure and even death.

The 2003 SARS outbreak resulted in more than 800 casualties among the 8,000 people who became infected around the world before it was contained. Although the mortality rate of the current novel coronavirus does not seem to be as extreme as SARS so far, controlling and containing SARS was made possible through quarantine and isolation, which are measures that are currently being undertaken.

Q:

What makes this novel coronavirus so serious? Who is it impacting most, where, and in what way?

A:

The latest virus was first identified in China, in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, in December 2019. The source of the virus is still unknown, but it most likely came from an animal source.

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Dr. Stoffels (right) with other members of his team at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson labs in Leiden, The Netherlands

Since then, the WHO has confirmed cases across the 30 provinces of China, as well as in other countries and territories worldwide, including Australia, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Macao, Malaysia, Nepal, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam.

According to the WHO, as of January 2020, the proportion of deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in currently reported cases was 4%, but this may change as more cases are confirmed, and if the virus mutates.

At this stage of the outbreak, most deaths associated with the novel coronavirus have been in older men, many of whom had pre-existing health issues.

Q:

How are these people being treated, and how can others best protect themselves?

A:

Currently, there are no approved existing therapeutics for this novel coronavirus. However, many of the symptoms of the virus can be treated, based on a patient’s condition.

The WHO recommends maintaining basic hand and respiratory hygiene, safe food practices, and avoiding close contact, when possible, with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing.

We began work on the current novel coronavirus vaccine two weeks ago, starting from a sequence we now know, and are optimistic that we can start testing later this year.

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Q:

Why is Johnson & Johnson uniquely positioned to create a vaccine for this virus?

A:

The company has a long-standing commitment to fight emerging epidemics. We stand ready to support global efforts where it may make a difference. Developing preventive solutions for those who are most vulnerable to infectious diseases like these is our top priority.

We have established technologies and facilities that enable us to create, test and scale up production for potentially transformational vaccines. Our experience in helping to address epidemics, coupled with our expertise in respiratory illnesses, uniquely positions us to address the latest coronavirus outbreak.

For example, we are actively engaged in developing new vaccines and treatments to address a wide range of infectious diseases that are already pandemics—such as HIV, hepatitis and TB—or that have pandemic potential, including Ebola, Zika and influenza.

As a result of our work in these other disease areas, we are hopeful that we can develop a vaccine for this virus by leveraging technology from the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson and rapidly upscale production. This technology was recently used in the acceleration of the development and manufacturing of our investigational Ebola vaccine that is currently deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. It was also used to construct the company’s investigational Zika and HIV vaccine candidates.

In situations like with Ebola, we were able to develop the investigational vaccine and scale it up rapidly. We began work on the current novel coronavirus vaccine two weeks ago, starting from a sequence we now know, and are optimistic that we can start testing later this year.

In order to meet the needs of this outbreak, we have a team of scientists working tirelessly on this effort right now.

Q:

Is there anything we’ve learned from Ebola and other outbreaks that could be helpful in a situation like this?

A:

As with our efforts around Ebola and other global health crises, this outbreak of a novel pathogen continues to reinforce the importance of investing in prevention, detection and response to infectious disease threats to ensure the world remains prepared for potential pandemic threats.

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Samples at the labs in Leiden

We must also work collaboratively with governments, civil society, healthcare companies and communities to ensure our research platforms and outbreak expertise can be maximized to fight the novel coronavirus moving forward.

This is why we are collaborating with different partners all over the world to make an effective vaccine that can ultimately be deployed quickly and extensively to help combat this outbreak.


Watch this video and meet some of the inspiring Johnson & Johnson scientists working on the novel coronavirus vaccine at the company's labs in Leiden, The Netherlands.

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Learn about the innovative ways the company is mobilizing to help combat the global outbreak caused by the novel coronavirus.

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