Researchers at the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the University of Texas at Austin claimed to have made a breakthrough in their coronavirus research on Wednesday and said their data could help develop a vaccine.
Scientists were able to create a 3D atomic-scale map of the part of the virus that attaches itself to human cells and causes infection, according to UT News. Mapping what researchers call the "spike protein" is a vital step toward developing vaccines and antiviral drugs.
Jason McLellan, an associate professor at UT Austin, spoke with Fox News on Thursday about the virus and said researchers hope to study the 3D map, in an effort to develop antibodies that can help fight the disease.
"What we've been able to do is produce the molecule that's on the surface of the coronavirus in our lab. So the surface of the virus contains these spike molecules that sort of resemble mushrooms and they use these molecules to bind to our cells and then cause the virus to enter the cells," he said.
"So we really want to target these spikes to prevent their function and prevent the virus from getting into our cell," McLellan continued. "We were able to produce large quantities of these spikes in our lab and then using cryo-electron microscopy, determined a three-dimensional map of these spike molecules. With that information, we and others around the world will begin to apply rational engineering approaches to create small molecules, antibodies in vaccines that target the spike and hopefully prevent the function of this molecule"
He echoed the NIH's hope to have a vaccine developed within 18 months but said it could end up taking over two years to crack the code.
"Optimistically a vaccine could be created in 18 to 24 months," McLellan said. "But this would still be extremely rapid compared to the one to two decades it normally takes, to make most vaccines. It's possible that the small molecules might be able to move quicker. There are some small molecules that have efficacy against other coronaviruses that may also work against this new coronavirus.
"So it's really a multi-pronged approach," he explained. "Vaccines could be ideal because you can treat [people]. You can vaccinate everybody before they're infected and then hopefully provide immunity to the virus. One of the advantages we have is that we've been working on coronaviruses in general for the last five to six years."
McLellan also called for increased government funding to prep for possible outbreaks in the future, so that researchers are not caught flat-footed when the next threat appears.
"That's where we need government funding to fund basic science ... on these viruses before they emerge," he added. "It's much better to have things ready than to try and rapidly respond to them.
"Something my lab is very interested in is developing a universal coronavirus, vaccines and countermeasures that would work against all coronaviruses, including those that have yet to emerge. And that way we can already have vaccines in stock ready to go before the next coronavirus outbreak occurs."
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference last week that vaccines are not the only tool that can be brought to bear against the outbreak and described it as just one piece of the puzzle.
"The development of vaccines and therapeutics is one important part of the research agenda. But it's not only one part," he explained. "They will take time to develop -- but in the meantime, we are not defenseless. The first vaccine could be ready in 18 months, so we have to do everything today using the available weapons to fight this virus."
According to Thursday estimates, more than 75,000 people worldwide have been infected with the novel coronavirus, now known as COVIS-19, while some 2,130 people have died.
Fox News' Alexandria Hein and Greg Norman contributed to this report.