Infectious disease experts will use £20 million of UK Government funding to embark on an ambitious six-month plan to produce a coronavirus vaccine.
Health Secretary Matthew Hancock on Monday said the Government would plough fresh money into developing a vaccine to combat the deadly global disease.
The news came as the death toll in China from the disease rose to 361, with one more fatality having been recorded in the Philippines.
A further 2,829 new cases were confirmed by Chinese health authorities in the 24 hours to Monday morning, taking the total number of cases in the country to 17,205.
Most cases have been recorded in Hubei province, whose capital city Wuhan is the epicentre of the outbreak.
Several countries including Britain have evacuated hundreds of their citizens from the infection zone.
Eleven more evacuees – comprising British citizens and their family members – arrived back in the country on Sunday evening to join the 83 already in quarantine at Arrowe Park Hospital in the Wirral.
The UK Government’s £20 million investment will go to CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), a global body aiming to fast-track a vaccine within six to eight months.
CEPI chief executive Dr Richard Hatchett said such a tight timescale was “unprecedented”.
If the biologists are successful, more time would still be required to test the vaccine more widely and secure sign-off from medical regulators before it could be distributed across the world.
“This is an extremely ambitious timeline – indeed, it would be unprecedented in the field of vaccine development,” Dr Hatchett said.
“It is important to remember that even if we are successful – and there can be no guarantee – there will be further challenges to navigate before we can make vaccines more broadly available.”
The UK’s money will help fund the efforts of Dr Kate Broderick, a 42-year-old Scot based in California, who is working to create a coronavirus vaccine.
“We have the opportunity to save some lives on the basis that we do this as fast as we can,” Dr Broderick, a molecular geneticist who works for the pharmaceutical company Inovio, told the Times.
The coronavirus outbreak has been categorised as a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation, with cases confirmed in several countries including Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan, as well as in the UK.
Two people, a University of York student and one of their relatives, are being treated for the infection in the UK.
Announcing investment into stemming the spread of the virus, Mr Hancock said: “Vaccines are our best defence against a host of deadly diseases, including coronavirus.
“The UK is a hub of world-leading and pioneering research, and it is vital that we lead the way in developing new vaccines to target global threats with scientists from across the world.
“The £20 million announced today will help our globally recognised vaccine development capabilities continue to develop new defences against emerging diseases, including coronavirus.”
Dr Hatchett said the Government funding came at a “crucial moment” in the fight against the spread of coronavirus.
“The rapid global spread and unique epidemiological characteristics of the virus are deeply concerning,” he said.
“Our hope is that, with our partners, we can get an investigational vaccine from gene sequencing of the pathogen through to clinical testing in 16 weeks.
“The earliest stage of phase one clinical trials, to establish the safety of investigational vaccines, would take around two to four months.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the Government – which has launched a public health campaign advising people how to slow the spread of the virus – is doing all it can to help Britons leave Wuhan.
Mr Raab told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We’ll do everything we can to make sure that those that still want to leave… (we will) give them the opportunity to do so.”
He added: “The challenge that we’ve got, and the Chinese have got frankly, is to contain the virus but also then to lift out people that want to come back home and we’re doing that as sensitively and as effectively as we can.”
The Department of Health said the new campaign of advertisements advising people to use tissues when sneezing or coughing and wash their hands regularly will target publications and forums known to be read by Chinese nationals in the UK.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said UK medics are working “round the clock” to prevent the spread of the illness, but added the general public can do its bit.
He said: “Basic hygiene such as washing our hands regularly and using tissues when we cough and sneeze can play an important role in minimising the spread of viruses like this.”
CEPI, which has offices in London, Norway and the US, is a global partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil society organisations to develop vaccines to stop future epidemics.
It was formed in 2017 in response to the Ebola epidemic in west Africa, a deadly outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people between 2013-16.
CEPI has kick-started four programmes into stemming coronavirus in the past two weeks, a spokesman confirmed, with the UK’s £20 million investment set to build on the previous £10 million ministers invested in the organisation in 2019.