As the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak continues to mount, pharmaceutcal companies are scrambling to develop a vaccine, including New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson.
The healthcare conglomerate headquartered in New Brunswick is among several companies working to create a vaccine to prevent the spread of the novel virus. Officially named COVID-19 this week by scientists, it has infected 59,800 people and killed more than 1,360 around the globe.
Working with partners and government agencies, Johnson & Johnson is also screening its “library of antiviral molecules” — including existing medicines — to develop potential treatments to combat the virus.
The largest healthcare company in the world began working on a vaccine in January. Paul Stoffels, vice chairman of the executive committee and chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, has estimated it can produce one in eight to 12 months.
“Johnson & Johnson is rapidly mobilizing resources at its Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies to help combat the threat of the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV," Stoffels said Wednesday in a statement to NJ Advance Media. “As part of this work, we have initiated efforts to develop a vaccine candidate against the virus, which we hope can ultimately be deployed quickly and extensively to help combat this outbreak.”
The World Health Organization said it hopes a vaccine will be available within 18 months.
“They will take time to develop. But in the meantime, we are not defenseless,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday at a press conference.
This week, the WHO labeled COVID-19 a global threat, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned it is preparing for the virus to “take a foothold in the U.S.”
There are only 14 confirmed cases in the U.S. and none in New Jersey, and officials say the risk currently remains low.
However, Chinese health officials in Hubei province — the epicenter of the outbreak — reported 15,000 new cases Thursday and 254 additional deaths, most of them in the city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated.
The surge in cases dimmed hopes that the epidemic may be slowing down.
Health officials fighting the outbreak have relied on measures such as quarantining patients, imposing travel restrictions and screening travelers at airports and other ports of entry.
This week, Sen. Bob Menendez said two young children were stranded in China for weeks, locked down due to the outbreak while visiting their grandparents in the city of Wuhan. There was also a Jersey City woman and a Monmouth County couple who were recently stuck in China as the deadly virus swept through the country.
The five New Jersey residents have since returned to the U.S. after being put under lockdown in Hubei province as airports were closed and quarantine measures were imposed to halt its spread.
Johnson & Johnson is researching coronavirus at its labs in the Netherlands.
The company said the vaccine program will utilize the same technologies used in the development and manufacturing of its Ebola, Zika and Respiratory Syncytial Virus vaccines.
“Developing an effective vaccine will be critical if we are to protect people against the novel coronavirus and combat future outbreaks,” Stoffels said in a statement posted on the Johnson & Johnson website. "If we have a vaccine candidate with potential, we aim to make it accessible to China and other parts of the world.”