Race Is On for SARS Vaccine

As SARS cases continue to increase, the U.S. government has a message for scientists: Make finding a vaccine a priority.

Since it began its dramatic spread, SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, has killed 111 people and sickened more than 2,781 globally, including 166 in the United States. So far, no U.S. deaths have been attributed to SARS.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson this week called together vaccine manufacturers from around the world for a private meeting in Washington.

He told the companies this situation was not "business as usual," and that the federal government wanted work to begin on a possible vaccine as quickly as possible.

The first challenge for researchers is to isolate the virus that causes SARS. Government scientists say they are almost certain it is a variety of the coronavirus, the virus that causes the common cold, but are still working to make sure.

Virus in a Test Tube

Meantime, scientists at the National Institutes of Health are already growing this virus in the lab.

"The first hump, the first roadblock, the first obstacle in development of a vaccine has really been overcome, because the virus itself is readily available," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci said he hopes to have a possible vaccine ready for human testing in just over a year. But it would still be years "before we have a vaccine available for people in a bottle to distribute, " Fauci said.

And he cautioned that "there are so many steps in the development of a vaccine that you can never guarantee that you're going to be successful."

You only have to look at the trouble researchers have had developing an AIDS vaccine. Back in 1984, one government official predicted an AIDS vaccine within two years. There still isn't one.

Looking for a Test, Treatments

In addition to working on a vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are trying to develop a diagnostic test for SARS. They hope to have one in the near future.

And at the same time, the government is looking for treatments for SARS.

Scientists at the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland are beginning to test some 2,000 already existing drugs. So far, though, nothing is proving promising.

Drug companies are also scrambling to offer medicines they hope might work. One small company, Advanced Viral Research Corp. in New York, has a drug it is testing for AIDS that it says can turn the immune system on and off. The company is planning to offer the drug for use on SARS patients.

"If in fact a SARS pandemic is what is developing, then it will add urgency to research all over the world," said Dr. Shalom Hirschman, president and CEO of Advanced Viral Research.

But Dr. Aaron Glatt , chief of infectious diseases at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital, is not optimistic because he said it has proven difficult to develop treatments to combat viruses.

"I'm hoping that I'm wrong, but I don't have the greatest faith at this point in time that we have an easily available agent that would be able to treat SARS," Glatt said.

For now, the best hope for stopping the spread of SARS may be an old-fashioned treatment — isolating anyone who has the disease.