Thanks to a grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the hunt for a vaccine to help stop the spread of a newly identified, fast-moving coronavirus is under way at Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA), a clinical-stage biotech company. Currently, the company has five vaccines under development, including one targeting the Zika virus.

A woman wearing a face mask.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

A family of viruses that can be passed between humans and animals, coronanaviruses can can cause life-threatening respiratory illness, including pneumonia. Since these viruses can evolve into new strains, they can be tough to treat. Some examples of the virus include Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which are two coronaviruses that pose challenges for healthcare professionals. 

On January 7, 2020, Chinese researchers reported a new coronavirus strain -- 2019-nCoV -- which has caused pneumonia in multiple people in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China. Since then, over 550 cases of 2019-nCoV have been identified, including one in the United States. So far, the coronavirus has resulted in 17 deaths, prompting China to invoke travel restrictions and researchers to ramp efforts to develop a vaccine for it.

Moderna hopes to tackle 2019-nCoV by leveraging its research into messenger RNA (mRNA), the instructions used by cells to make proteins. By tinkering with mRNA, Moderna hopes to cause cells to produce viral antigens, triggering an immune response in patients that can help to prevent the more infection. If Moderna succeeds, then the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) will test its vaccine in Phase 1 clinical studies. However, it may be a while before we find out if Moderna's vaccine is effective, because it can take years to conduct the clinical research necessary to secure Food and Drug Administration approval.