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Northern Ireland scientist leading way in bid to create coronavirus vaccine

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Queen’s University Belfast educated scientist Paul Duprex is working on a vaccine for the coronavirus

Queen’s University Belfast educated scientist Paul Duprex is working on a vaccine for the coronavirus

Queen’s University Belfast educated scientist Paul Duprex is working on a vaccine for the coronavirus

A Co Armagh scientist is at the forefront of the global race to find a vaccine to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Professor Paul Duprex, originally from Lurgan, is the director of one of the most advanced centres for vaccine research in the United States.

The Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, which includes a high security containment laboratory, was one of the first in the US to receive samples of the virus.

Scientists at the centre are working with "all hands on deck in a rapidly moving situation" to grow and map the virus, then develop animal models as part of a global, and collaborative, race to find a vaccine as soon as possible.

"We brought together the entire scientific team, mobilised as soon as we became aware and then got active," said Prof Duprex.

Other teams are working on developing drugs, but vaccines are "our game", said the scientist, who graduated from Queen's University, Belfast, with a joint degree in biochemistry and genetics.

He gained his PhD in virology and lectured for 16 years at the university before moving to the US.

Moderna, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech company, announced yesterday that it plans to begin human trials on a potential vaccine it is developing using RNA coding.

"It means there is a vaccine candidate, a step forward," the vaccine research director said, but cautioned that mass doses of a vaccine likely will not be available for a year or more.

Prof Duprex said Pittsburgh was chosen as one of the centres to be picked to begin work quickly because of its long history working with viruses.

The university is also internationally renowned as the professional home of Jonas Salk, the creator of the polio vaccine.

"We have a high security containment laboratory where we are able to work with pathogens safely," he said, adding that the centre staff has worked on other high profile viruses, including SARS and MERS.

The scientist explained his team first developed cells on which the virus could be grown into millions of particles. Animal-based models to carry out deep lung tests are then produced. While historically the development of vaccines was slow - sometimes taking years as in the case of polio - times have changed with a variety of different ways to generate them, the former Lurgan College student said.

In the case of the coronavirus, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the regulatory bodies charged with policing trials and reviewing drugs and vaccines, have indicated they will speed up the review process.

But Prof Duprex noted that it takes six months for a normal flu vaccine to be developed, tested, reviewed and be available in sufficient amounts to meet demand.

"We have to be realistic because when you say a vaccine is in development people have to understand what that actually means. It is potentially months, a year, more than a year, probably."

The university staff are actively working with other scientists across the globe and co-coordinating with the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"No one's ego is more important than the public health and we need to be collaborative," Prof Duprex said.

"There is a sharing of data which is not typical within the world wide scientific community, but it is critical that we are good partners."

Belfast Telegraph