With the recent announcement of the Covid-19 pandemic, all eyes are on the scientific research community to develop an effective vaccine for this virus. But, how are these vaccines created? Are there any candidates on the horizon? And what are the any options for those who cannot get vaccinated?
Vaccines work by creating a weaker version of the harmful bacteria or virus that is infecting us, the pathogen. The pathogen for the Covid-19 pandemic is called SARS-CoV-2. This weaker version of the pathogen is not strong enough to cause disease in humans. By injecting this weak version of the pathogen into a patient, the patient’s immune system learns to successfully fight any future infection caused by the same type of pathogen.
To create a vaccine for viral infections you therefore need to have access to the virus to create a weaker version of it and mass produce it. This can, most obviously, be achieved by taking samples of infected people. However, due to the contagious nature of the disease and attempt to contain it, China has openly released the genetic sequence of the virus so that samples are not required. Research is focusing on creating a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine using the “plug and play” method. This method is quite novel and involves only taking certain genes of the pathogen, instead of the entire pathogen, and placing these gene sequences inside the body of a less harmful virus.
As of 17th March 2020, over 30 companies and academic institutions are developing potential vaccines. Vaccine development typically takes around 15 to 20 years to complete, owing to the length of certain procedures that must be followed. These include testing the vaccine on animals in order to determine whether it is safe and effective in preventing the disease. The race against the Covid-19 pandemic means that research institutes are concentrating their efforts to develop a vaccine much faster than the norm. Certain research institutes are skipping animal testing and going straight to testing on humans. Although the benefits to this are clear, we must be aware that what we gain in speed, we lose in certainty of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
Boston-based biotech Moderna has concentrated efforts on developing a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 and has managed to do so with great speed, having begun testing on human subjects on the 16th March 2020. This study is expected to last approximately six weeks and is designed to provide data on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. Moderna has collaborated on a vaccine for MERS-CoV, a similar type of coronavirus to SARS-CoV-2, giving the biotech a strong advantage.
The Galilee Research Institute (MIGAL) in Israel has also announced that they are close to the development of the first SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. MIGAL has coincidentally spent the past four years developing a vaccine for a poultry version of coronavirus, which has been proven to be effective in preclinical trials. Covid-19 has a very similar genome and infection mechanism to the poultry coronavirus.
Many other institutions are currently working towards a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, including Inovio Pharmaceuticals, CureVac, and Pfizer.
There have also been efforts towards the development of a treatment for SARS-CoV-2. Certain subsections of the population who are immunocompromised, such as those with cancer, cannot get vaccinated. Aside from avoiding infection, the next best step for these individuals is treatment, should this treatment be indicated for their conditions. Several institutions have begun testing an antiviral drug called remdesivir, originally developed for Ebola. Eli Lilly has teamed up with AbCellera to develop an antibody-based treatment, specifically developed for SARS-CoV-2.
Although no-one can predict when we will have a vaccine or treatment for SARS-CoV-2, this has become the focus for most biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies that are equipped for this type of research. The more information we have on the pathogen and the more we delay the spread of this disease, the more likely it becomes that we will soon have an effective and safe solution to this problem that is touching so many lives.