This story is part of the CBS 42 special report Coronavirus: The Facts.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Doctors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) know how serious coronaviruses can be.

So when reports started to be released from China about COVID-19, doctors started preparing for the chance it might end up in Alabama. Now, they’re involved in an effort that could help make a difference across the globe.

“It is nerve-wracking,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB Division of Infectious Diseases.

Marrazzo has had a heavy workload, ever since news of the novel coronavirus started to break.

“We’ve all pretty much been on high alert for the last several weeks,” she said.

Over the last two weeks, Marrazzo’s focus has been almost exclusively on the coronavirus, which presents unique challenges compared to other infections.

“We have not seen [these] kinds of measures, the quarantine measures, the social isolation measures, now the school closures at [this] level in the United States…,” she said.

UAB is playing a role in fighting the virus. The school’s Division of Infectious Diseases is participating in a study with the National Institutes of Health with the goal to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.

“It’s an exhilarating and incredibly anxiety-provoking time,” Marrazzo said.

But past research is helping now because UAB has done many studies related to similar viruses. Marrazzo showed CBS 42 a video of some of their past lab work. Marrazzo says investments in previous research are paying off now.

“We learned from the SARS virus that you could basically use the genetic or gene sequence of the virus to work backward and find a vaccine that could be productive,” she said.

That means the research into coronavirus can move along much more quickly.

“The pace of this has been really unprecedented, and I think it’s a real testament to our investment into the development of vaccines,” Marrazzo said.

Marrazzo warns that there is still a lot of work to do. The division hopes to start the first trials of vaccines in humans by April. It could take more than a year and a half before large numbers of people are able to use the vaccine.

“People need to understand…that the pace of vaccine research requires very careful, sequential, iterative assessment of safety and efficacy,” she said.

Whether the studies can be expedited to combat the rapid spread of the virus has yet to be determined. Marrazzo encourages people to be realistic about what they expect from the pace of these studies, which involve many ethical and scientific variables.