A young woman covers her face as she walks. (RFE/RL Photo)

Armenia Takes Precautions as Coronavirus Arrives, US Biotech Run by Afeyan Working on Vaccine

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YEREVAN (Combined Sources) —  Armenia, as of March 3, has one confirmed case of coronavirus and nine suspected ones.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, at a press conference on that day said, “At this moment we are waiting for the results to 9 tests, and will inform the public once the results come in,” Pashinyan said. “We hope they will not be confirmed. But if, God forbid, they are confirmed, we will inform about it. [But] if confirmed, it should not cause any panic. This is a surmountable disease, and for the time being our only [positive] diagnosis is even in a process that, in fact, he is not being treated because he has no symptoms.”

Armenia’s only detected case was a 29-year-old man who recently returned with his wife from Iran.

A poster urging caution (RFE/RL Photo)

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on March 1 in a Facebook posting that “about two hours ago we confirmed a case of coronavirus, unfortunately.”

Pashinyan said the man, an Armenian citizen, had arrived by plane from Tehran on February 28 and later went to the hospital for treatment. He is in good condition, the prime minister said.

Pashinyan said people the victim has had close contact with will be quarantined.

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He added that all of the passengers on the flight with him from Tehran had been wearing face masks and were escorted from the airport under previously set precautions for people traveling from Iran.

The Armenian government decided on February 24 to partly close Armenia’s border with Iran and cancel regular flights between the two for at least two weeks due to the rapid spread of the virus in the Islamic Republic. The border remains open for commercial cargo shipments mostly carried out by Iranian trucks.

According to Torosyan, Iranian truck drivers’ physical contact with people in Armenia has been “minimized.” A spokeswoman for the Armenian Ministry of Health said on Saturday that the drivers are under the “24-hour surveillance” of Armenian medics and are not allowed to leave their vehicles without police escort.

Pashinyan announced that classes in Armenian kindergartens, schools and universities have been suspended for one week. “We need some time to understand what’s going on,” he said in a live video addressed aired on Facebook.

Despite the prime minister’s calls to “maintain calm,” the news of the first coronavirus case detected in Armenia triggered panic buying of foodstuffs in some supermarkets in Yerevan. There were also reports that holidaymakers began cancelling hotel bookings in Tsaghkadzor for fear of being infected by the people quarantined at the secluded local hotel.

Iran has become the hot spot for the disease in the Middle East. An Iranian Health Ministry spokesman on February 29 said nine people died from the virus over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of reported deaths to 43 amid 593 confirmed infections.

Iran has been linked to most of the more than 200 confirmed cases of the virus now spread across the region, and many countries in and outside the Caucasus, Middle East, and Central Asia have imposed restrictions on travel to and from Iran in an effort to curtail the disease’s spread.

Neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan reported infections this week, with three in each country.

One day after Armenian authorities reported the first such case, Pashinyan also urged Armenians to avoid nonessential travel to Italy and Turkey.

Armenia has nearly 1,000 laboratory test kits for detecting novel coronavirus and will get 2,000 more on March 6 Torosyan said in an interview with journalist Karlen Aslanyan.

“In addition, we negotiate with the UK and Russia. There are some offers also from China, Japan and the US. We are still considering if we should get new test kits, since up till now we received the test kits from our partners as assistance. It’s possible that there will be no need for new ones, because my prediction is that we are on the way of declining outbreaks with the exception of one-two countries. Many other specialist also share my prediction,” Torosyan said.

Moderna Therapeutics Working on Virus

Moderna Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech company co-founded by Noubar Afeyan, co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, has shipped the first batches of its COVID-19 vaccine, Time reports.

The vaccine was created just 42 days after the genetic sequence of the COVID-19 virus, called SARS-CoV-2, was released by Chinese researchers in mid-January.

The first vials were sent to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, which will ready the vaccine for human testing as early as April.

Moderna’s vaccine against COVID-19 was developed in record time because it’s based on a relatively new genetic method that does not require growing huge amounts of virus.

Instead, the vaccine is packed with mRNA, the genetic material that comes from DNA and makes proteins.

Moderna wins bragging rights as it kick-starts first experimental coronavirus clinical trial.

Moderna’s hope lays in its messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, mRNA-1273, which has been shipped out to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for a phase 1 test set to start as early as April.

This will be tested on several dozen healthy patients to assess safety and immune response.

“I want to thank the entire Moderna team for their extraordinary effort in responding to this global health emergency with record speed. The collaboration across Moderna, with NIAID, and with CEPI has allowed us to deliver a clinical batch in 42 days from sequence identification,” said Juan Andres, chief technical operations and quality officer at Moderna.

“This would not have been possible without our Norwood manufacturing site, which uses leading-edge technology to enable flexible operations and ensure high quality standards are met for clinical-grade material.”

On the news (which was first published by The Wall Street Journal), the unicorn biotech, which is predominately an early-stage company with much to prove, saw its shares shoot up more than 18% after-hours to around $19 a share, down from its heights of more than $24 at the start of the month (which then led to a public offering of its common shares).

Worldwide, the COVID-19 outbreak, which began in China, has infected more than 86,000 people and killed some 3,000.

Most of the deaths and infections have occurred in China, but the epidemic has spread elsewhere, with Iran becoming the hardest hit outside of mainland China.

(Reports from RFE/RL, Armenpress, Reuters, news.am and Fierce Biotech were used to compile this story.)

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