Researchers racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 face an even more urgent task in light of recent reports that the coronavirus has rebounded in Asia despite efforts to tamp it down.
New cases of the disease have emerged in Wuhan, Singapore and Hong Kong in the past week, after governments lifted some of their social distancing controls.
That raises the stakes for scientists participating in an unparalleled global effort to develop a vaccine, including hundreds in the United States. More than 125 organizations -- including major drug companies, government laboratories and top universities -- are working on a vaccine or other treatments, according to leading researchers.
"No response has ever gone this fast before," said Phyllis Arthur, vice president for infectious diseases and diagnostic policy at BIO, a trade association that represents drugmakers, biotech firms and others in the health industry. "We have gone from genetic sequencing to treatment possibilities within weeks."
But the lethal threat is likely to remain active until a fully tested vaccine arrives.
Restrictions on group gatherings, business activity and travel are only effective at reducing the spread of the disease. Evidence is surfacing that new outbreaks can occur once those measures are lifted.
After initial success at containing the disease, Singapore clamped new restrictions this week on schools and nonessential businesses. Hong Kong also experienced a rebound after it relaxed controls, while the United States and Europe remain in earlier phases of the fight and have restrictions still in place. Wuhan has a new cluster of the cases, as well.
Even with a vaccine, COVID-19 will remain a menace, because researchers are not sure if the virus that causes it could mutate in the years ahead, reducing the effectiveness of a vaccine and forcing it to be modified.
"What we don't know about this virus is what its pace of evolution is," said David Rakestraw, a chemical physicist who is helping lead the COVID-19 work underway at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which has conducted bioterrorism research for decades. "Don't expect this to go away soon. The virus is in the population now, and it will evolve."
Much of the political dialogue on COVID-19 has focused on face masks, ventilators and quick tests for frontline workers, but in laboratories across the nation, researchers have mobilized like never before to tap new tools in the race for medicines that could treat and prevent the disease.