Two groups of UK scientists are racing to develop a vaccine able to protect against coronavirus.
Robin Shattock, Professor of Mucosal Infection and Immunity at Imperial, hopes to move to human testing in the summer if effective.
He said the vaccine would not be available until the end of the year at the earliest but it would be a vital “insurance policy” in the event the epidemic cannot be brought under control.
His trials will harness RNA technology — the code for proteins on the surface of the virus — to create “neutralising antibodies” to prevent infection or reduce the virus’s impact.
The other vaccine search is being led by Professors Sarah Gilbert at Oxford. She said hers aimed to use an adenoviral vector to deliver a live virus to stimulate an immune response in the body and hopes to launch in-human studies this summer.
“It may not give life-long immunity but in an outbreak it gives you very rapid immunity and will last until the outbreak is over,” she said.
Prof Shattock, based at Imperial’s campus at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, said: “We will hopefully see a number of vaccines entering human testing in summer. But that would just test whether they are safe and induce the right immune responses.
“They would then have to go into an efficacy trial involving thousands of individuals to see if it works.
“The reality is we probably won’t have a vaccine available until the end of this year at the earliest. But that is still important. We don’t know how long this epidemic will grow. We need this as an insurance policy.”
Global experts are attempting to predict when the spread of the virus will peak by mapping the “curve” of the outbreak but warn there are too many holes in the data to reliably predict when it will.
Zhong Nanshan, of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, believes the epidemic will start to peak from next Wednesday.
The fundamentals of a disease epidemic model could include factors such as number of known infections, time passed, frequency of travel and potential mitigating controls like quarantine or screening.