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As the number of patients infected with the new coronavirus in China passes the total number infected with SARS in 2003, scientists in Hong Kong revealed that they have already developed a vaccine.
But the breakthrough is not going to help the thousands of people currently infected with the virus.
“We have already produced the vaccine, but it will take a long time to test,” Yuen Kwok Yung, chair of infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post, revealing that his team had isolated the previously unknown virus from the city’s first imported case.
Yeun was unavailable to comment on the exact timeline for the vaccine on Wednesday, but he said it would take months to test the vaccine on animals, and at least another year to conduct clinical trials on humans, before it was fit for use.
The race to produce a vaccine has intensified in recent days as the number of people infected has exploded. There are now over 6,000 confirmed cases in China, a total surpassing the SARS infection rate in 2003 that killed 349 in the country. On Wednesday, the last remaining uninfected region in China, Tibet, reported its first suspected case.
To date, the virus has killed 132 people in China.
Globally the infection also continues to spread, with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates reporting their first cases on Wednesday.
The researchers in Hong Kong are just one of more than half a dozen laboratories outside of China racing to develop vaccines for the deadly virus.
There are at least four labs in the U.S. working on developing a vaccine. The National Institutes of Health in Maryland has been working on the issue for weeks, while scientists working for three private companies — Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Therapeutics, and Inovio Pharmaceuticals — are also seeking to develop vaccines.
In Australia, researchers have become the first to grow the virus in a lab outside of China, a breakthrough that the scientists said would be “a game-changer for diagnosis” as it will allow for the development of a test to confirm infections even in patients who are showing no symptoms.
“The virus will be used as positive control material for the Australian network of public health laboratories, and also shipped to expert laboratories working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Europe,” Julian Druce, from Melbourne's Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, said in a statement.
As scientists race to develop protections for the virus, governments around the world are taking steps to keep their citizens safe.
Evacuations and lockdowns
The White House on Tuesday told U.S. airlines that it was considering imposing a blanket ban on all flights into and out of China.
On Wednesday British Airways announced it was suspending all flights into and out of China, and Air Canada, United Airlines and Cathay Pacific have also canceled some of their flights into and out of China.
Hundreds of foreign nationals have been evacuated from Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, in recent days. On Wednesday the U.S. evacuated 240 Americans from Wuhan, including dozens of diplomats. Australia, South Korea, Japan France, and the U.K. are also repatriating their citizens.
In China, tens of millions of people in cities across Hubei remain in lockdown as Beijing scrambles to contain the virus. In Wuhan, where the outbreak was first reported, the city streets are empty, but work continues at breakneck speed on a new hospital that is due to be completed early next week.
The city has already converted an empty building into a 1,000-bed emergency facility that was opened on Wednesday after just two days of work to convert it.
While citizens in Wuhan remain under lockdown, those who managed to escape the city before transport links were shut down are reportedly facing increasing stigma in other parts of China.
Images posted on social media show people building unofficial roadblocks to prevent people from Wuhan entering their villages or towns. Police have vowed to crack down on unauthorized roadblocks.
Hotels and gas stations are also reportedly refusing to accept people from Wuhan, according to online reports.
According to The Paper, a Chinese publication, one man from Wuhan was stranded between the provinces of Anhui and Henan after both sides denied him of entry due to the coronavirus outbreak. He was forced to sleep in his car by the highway for two nights after local hotels said they would not accept guests from Wuhan.
Cover: Students line up to sanitize their hands to avoid the contact of coronavirus before their morning class at a hight school in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)