SCOTTISH scientists are at the forefront of researching a vaccine to combat the coronavirus outbreak, it has emerged.

The development was announced yesterday at a press briefing by the Scottish Government on an update on the pandemic.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood revealed the Roslin Institute at Edinburgh University was recruiting patients for clinical trials for a possible vaccine. She said: “There is a group in Scotland led by Ken Baillie from the Roslin Institute which is already recruiting patients on a UK-wide basis into trials of vaccines.”

Last month the Roslin Institute announced it was taking part in global efforts to better understand and develop therapies for the ongoing coronavirus infection.

Edinburgh University said last month Baillie, senior clinical research fellow in anaesthesia and critical care at the Centre for Inflammation Research and the Roslin Institute, was collaborating with experts in the UK and internationally to tackle the global pandemic. Baillie is a member of two panels of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for coronavirus, and attended a recent research meeting in Geneva on the pandemic.

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The ongoing coronavirus outbreak began in China and is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. It has now spread to 203 countries and claimed 33,106 lives, according to data released by the WHO last night.

The WHO also reported there were currently 693,224 people who had tested positive for the virus.

At the Roslin Institute, researchers have been analysing shared, publicly available and accessible genetic information about the virus.

Scientists there are also investigating similarities between the latest virus and SARS-CoV, which is better known medically and was first identified in the early 2000s, as well as related bat viruses.

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The comparisons are already helping to identify genetic regions of the new virus that may be changing in response to it infecting people. The insights could help devise strategies to control SARS-CoV-2 and better understand how it spreads.

Researchers at the institute said last month they are working to trace when and how the current coronavirus was first transmitted from an animal to a person. By knowing this, they can explore what factors made it possible for the virus to spread.

Based on the current data, scientists believe the virus may have emerged around November or December 2019, which is consistent with the known early cases, although there is a degree of uncertainty, scientists say.

The most similar coronavirus to SARS-CoV-2 is found in bats. However, there are sufficient differences between the two to suggest that the current outbreak did not derive directly from the animals.

There could be other, more similar viruses from other species that have not yet been sampled, scientists explain. In fact, viruses with similar sequences have now been found in pangolins, although the role of pangolins in the current outbreak is still unclear.

Based on evidence from previous outbreaks of similar types of infection such as SARS, treating coronavirus patients with steroids provides little benefit and could do more harm than good, University of Edinburgh scientists conclude.

Steroids impair the immune system’s ability to fight viruses and other infections that often develop in patients with life-threatening illness. Research has found patients with SARS who were treated with steroids seemed to take longer to clear the infection from their bodies, but clinical trials will be needed to be sure.

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