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China has more cases of coronavirus than it had of SARS, but a vaccine could be on the horizon

'This is still obviously a very active outbreak'

Betsy Joles/Getty Images

China now has more cases of Wuhan coronavirus than it did of the SARS virus during the 2002-03 outbreak, according to the country's own numbers, but a vaccine could be on the way soon.

According to the New York Post, China has reported 5,974 cases of the fast-spreading illness, which surpasses the 5,327 cases of SARS the country experienced over a decade ago. The Associated Press, however, notes that Wednesday's death toll of 132 is well below the SARS outbreak's Chinese death toll of 348.

But while it appears to be less deadly, CNN notes, the Wuhan virus is spreading much faster than SARS, taking less than two months to hit around 75 percent of the total number of worldwide infections of the 2002-03 outbreak, which took place over a period of nine months.

The news comes on the same day as a World Health Organization official described the rapid spread of the virus as a matter of "grave concern" at a news conference at the organization's headquarters in Geneva.

"These developments in terms of the evolution of the outbreak and further development of transmission, these are of grave concern and has spurred countries into action," said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program. "What we know at this stage, this is still obviously a very active outbreak and information is being updated and changing by the hour."

WHO numbers released Wednesday show over 6,065 confirmed cases worldwide, with the vast majority of them being in China. But WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced Wednesday that he had called an emergency committee meeting regarding the matter, explaining that "some person-to-person transmission" in three countries outside of China indicates "potential for further global spread."

The rapid spread of the new virus — which originated from the city of Wuhan, China — didn't come as a big surprise to Eric Toner, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Three months ago, he conducted a hypothetical pandemic and found that a rapid-spreading disease similar to coronavirus could infect people in every country on earth within a six-month window.

"I have thought for a long time that the most likely virus that might cause a new pandemic would be a coronavirus," Toner said.

While that may sound dire, Toner also said, "If we could make it so that we could have a vaccine within months rather than years or decades, that would be a game changer." And that's exactly what a Philadelphia-based pharmaceutical company is trying to make happen.

Fox News reported that Inovio Pharmaceuticals — which was previously known for its seven-month turnaround on producing a Zika vaccine a few years ago — is hoping to have a coronavirus vaccine available to the public in the next few months.

"We hold the WHO record for producing a vaccine from bench to people for the Zika virus outbreak in 2015. And that was seven months from the bench, from first getting a sequence to putting it in people with seven months," an Inovio spokesman told the outlet. He added that they company thinks they get the vaccine ready for public consumption even faster this time around.

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