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With more than 100 research projects underway to develop vaccines for the novel coronavirus, the United States, Europe and China have taken the lead in clinical trials, but one Japanese team also plans to start trials this week.

According to the World Health Organization, about 140 vaccines are being developed and 16 of them have reached the stage of safety and efficacy confirmation in clinical trials.

In addition to conventional inactivated vaccines, a new type known as gene-based vaccines are also being developed.

Gene-based vaccines develop immunity by introducing parts of the DNA or RNA of a virus into the human body. As they do not involve cultivation of the virus itself, development of such vaccines typically involves a shorter manufacturing period and lower costs.

Although such vaccines have yet to be put into practical use, they may be useful for dealing quickly with virus mutations.

“Research on the technology started in the 1990s,” said Ken Ishii, professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Medical Science, who specializes in vaccine research. “It has been used in the development of medicines for animals, and no major safety problems have been found.”

It is this gene-based technology that has been harnessed in the vaccine for which clinical trials are set to start in Japan on Tuesday.

The vaccine was developed by Osaka University and AnGes Inc., a drug development startup originating from the school. Clinical trials will be conducted on 30 people at the Osaka City University Hospital.

In an effort to achieve practical application at an early date, the team plan to increase the number of trial participants to some 500 in October, and establish a production system capable of providing doses for 200,000 people by March next year.

Vaccine development usually takes five to 10 years. Research on an HIV vaccine has been ongoing for more than 30 years, with no immunization having become available for practical use.

Ishii welcomes the numerous development projects focused on novel coronavirus vaccines, but said only a few are likely to be put into practical use after confirmation of their safety and efficacy.

If a country develops a vaccine with practical applications, that country is expected to prioritize administration of the vaccine to its own citizens.

“Working out measures against infectious diseases is an issue close to security,” Ishii said. “Domestic production of a vaccine is of paramount importance.”

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