Clinical trials to study a potential new vaccine for coronavirus began Friday morning at Emory University in Atlanta, the school announced.

The study trials, which started earlier this month in Seattle, are the first phase of a process expected to take at least a year to complete. Overseen by the National Institutes of Health, the trials mark the first official testing of a possible COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S.

There is no cure or preventative vaccine yet for the novel strain of coronavirus, which had infected 2,001 people and killed 64 in Georgia as of noon Friday. Tens of thousands of people have been sickened by the respiratory virus across the U.S. as many hospitals face an influx of patients and a dwindling supply of medical equipment needed to fight the disease.

“A vaccine against COVID-19 is urgently needed because of widespread infection and lack of preexisting immunity,” said Dr. Nadine Rouphael, an associate professor of medicine at Emory’s School of Medicine and interim director of the Hope Clinic at Emory’s Vaccine Center, who is helping lead the vaccine study.

“We are looking forward to being part of a nationwide effort to respond to this crisis,” she said. 

Emory doctors started administering the vaccine to trial participants Friday morning, said university spokesman Quinn Eastman. The study is estimated to be completed by June 2020 but doctors should have some results before then, Eastman said.

The university is looking to sign up 45 participants total for the Atlanta-based study. Candidates need to be between 18 and 55 years old. Also, they should not be pregnant, taking immunosuppressive medications or have any chronic health issues affecting their immune systems. 

Unlike traditional vaccines that introduce disease-causing organisms, the vaccine being tested at Emory involves using genetic sequencing to create proteins that mimic the novel strain of coronavirus and trigger a response from the patient’s immune system to erect safeguards.

These so-called mRNA vaccines can be cheaper and faster to produce but are less tried-and-true than traditional vaccines, according to the nonprofit PHG Foundation at the University of Cambridge.

The potential coronavirus vaccine, called mRNA-1273, was developed in roughly two months by the Massachusetts-based company Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which kicked off clinical trials last week in Seattle.

The institute’s director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, called the trials now underway a critical part of developing a vaccine against coronavirus.

“Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection with [coronavirus] is an urgent public health priority,” Fauci said in a statement. “This Phase 1 study, launched in record speed, is an important first step toward achieving that goal.”

Developing vaccines in the U.S. involves three phases of clinical trials that each expand the number of test participants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If found effective, any coronavirus vaccine would need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before it could be manufactured for the American public.

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