Coronavirus: Scientists stumble on potential vaccine by 'pure luck'

Scientists in Israel say they're very close to producing a vaccine for COVID-19, the deadly coronavirus which is sweeping the world.

As of Friday morning there have been 82,500 confirmed cases and 2810 deaths from the virus, which emerged in China over the new year. 

Israel has had three confirmed cases, one of whom has fully recovered, and no deaths.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis on Thursday (Israel time) said they were just a few weeks away from having it ready.

"I am confident there will be further rapid progress, enabling us to provide a needed response to the grave global COVID-19 threat," he said, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The potential vaccine is being developed at the Galilee Research Institute. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered scientists to work on a vaccine in the first week of February, the Times of Israel reported

The scientists stumbled upon the potential vaccine by "pure luck", biotechnologist Chen Katz told The Jerusalem Post.

They had been working on a vaccine for a particular bronchitis virus that affects poultry for years before the COVID-19 outbreak started. When the COVID-19 genome was sequenced, they noticed it was very similar to that belonging to the disease they were already working on. 

"All we need to do is adjust the system to the new sequence," said Dr Katz. "We are in the middle of this process, and hopefully in a few weeks we will have the vaccine in our hands. Yes, in a few weeks, if it all works, we would have a vaccine to prevent coronavirus."

The World Health Organization has previously suggested it could be 18 months before a vaccine would be available.

Even if the Israeli scientists' vaccine proves to work, it could be three months before it's available - having to go through the usual regulatory processes and trials. Akunis has reportedly ordered the process to be fast-tracked, given the threat posed by COVID-19, which has infected hundreds in nearby Iran. Egypt and Lebanon, which border Israel to the south and north, have both reported cases.

Scientists in Australia earlier this week said they might too have a possible vaccine, which is presently undergoing animal testing. But they don't expect human trials to begin until the middle of the year.

"It is not a race between vaccine producers, it is a race against this particular virus," University of Queensland's Paul Young told ABC News last weekend. 

"It has been significantly more challenging than we thought."