A team of scientists created a vaccine that may have been able to prevent the deadly coronavirus outbreak, but they were never able to get funding to commence clinical trials, experts told Congress on Thursday.
Dr Peter Hotez, co-director of the Centre for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital, testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee as health officials confirmed at least 160 cases of the Wuhan coronavirus in at least 17 states across the country.
"We had the vaccine ready to go," the doctor told lawmakers about a vaccine his team developed to protect against a strain of coronavirus in 2016, but "by then nobody was interested in a coronavirus vaccine."
Dr Hotez said the vaccine his team created in response to SARS may provide patients with cross-protection from the new strain of coronavirus that has caused more than 3,200 deaths worldwide, the majority of those cases resulting in China where the illness was believed to have originated.
But he explained that his team attempted to secure funding from investors in order to move the vaccine into the clinical trial phase, but a decade had gone by since SARS spread across China, and agencies were not focused on preventing another coronavirus outbreak.
He also warned against "inflated claims about vaccines coming in weeks," saying the process to manufacture and distribute a vaccine to combat the new coronavirus will take much longer than some officials have estimated.
He noted a previous study testing similar vaccines that resulted in two deaths, and said any trials for a potential vaccine would "have to proceed very cautiously, very slowly".
Dr Hotez was joined by a panel of infectious disease experts on Thursday when he warned of the "unique potential safety problems" that arise in testing coronavirus vaccines.
"It's tragic that we won't have a vaccine ready for this epidemic," Dr Hotez said in his opening remarks, a copy of which was shared with NBC News. "Practically speaking, we'll be fighting these outbreaks with one hand tied behind our backs."
The Independent's health correspondent Shaun Lintern noted in response to the doctor's claims that "most cases where new strains of viruses emerge, vaccines need to be changed and that requires time and testing and trials, which can take months."
"Even if this vaccine could be adapted it would be unlikely to be useful now or for many months", he added.
Dr Susan Murray, program director of the Smithsonian Global Health Programme, also testified on Thursday that the coronavirus was "not a surprise" to experts who had been researching the spread of similar infectious diseases in recent years.
"These pandemics are coming," she said, while calling on Congress to bring experts from different fields and countries to combat the potential crisis.
"We look at the economy globally," she said, "it's really time that we look at health globally."
The doctor also told lawmakers scientists have found several other strains of coronavirus in China.