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Norwich scientist working on coronavirus vaccine

PUBLISHED: 06:00 07 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:48 07 March 2020

Prof George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.  Pic: Archant library/John Innes Centre

Prof George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Pic: Archant library/John Innes Centre

A virus expert working at the John Innes Centre is working on creating a vaccine against coronavirus in pigs – which if it works, could possibly be used on humans.

A virus expert working at the John Innes Centre is working on creating a vaccine against coronavirus in pigs - which if it works, could possibly be used on humans.

Professor George Lomonossoff, who is an expert in viruses having worked for 40 years at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, began his work studying plants.

But for the past six months he has been experimenting on a vaccine to prevent coronavirus in pigs. If it works - and produces antibodies that create an immunity against the virus - he thinks it could be developed for possible use in humans against Covid-19.

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But he said it will take time - he's six months away from animal trials and even if it works, believes it would take a year to 18 months to have a vaccine in place for humans.

And, using his expert knowledge in how viruses work, he gave a stark warning. He said the latest news that Covid-19 is mutating into different strains is typical of this kind of virus - and will make it very difficult to treat.

Prof George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Pic: John Innes CentreProf George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Pic: John Innes Centre

"The mutation rates make it difficult to catch, you are running to stand still. I hope that we can learn from what we are doing with coronavirus in pigs which could be applicable to the overall design of a vaccine against coronavirus in animals and also humans.

"There was one moment last week when I thought maybe, we could contain it, with only a few infected people from China and Italy, but it was optimistic. Now it's known to have spread from person to person in the UK, there will be a big rise in cases.

"I myself am 65 and my advice is to take sensible precautions; if you are in a particularly at risk group avoid big crowds, probably think about whether you need to go to the cinema or theatre or even the gym."

Prof Lomonossoff, who heads up a team of 10, has not been handling the virus itself in his research but component parts of it which can still raise an immune response; he makes a synthetic virus which mimics the real one.

Prof George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Pic: ArchantProf George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Pic: Archant

He is also hopeful that anti-virals could be helpful against Covid-19; these stop the replication of the cycle of a virus and are used in treating SARS and HIV.

"I have seen swine flu in 2009, I have seen mad cow disease, which was mysterious, people didn't know what the future would be, I have seen veterinary diseases like foot and mouth in 2001, I worked on a new diagnostic control for that, but Covid-19 is the worst I've seen in that it spreads so quickly in humans.

"There will be more deaths - personally my fear is more the disruption it is going to cause. We need to be sensible, we need to do everything we can to stop it, to keep the rates of infection and the deaths as low as possible."

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Prof George Lomonossoff. Pic: ArchantProf George Lomonossoff. Pic: Archant

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