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1 April, 2020 00:00 00 AM

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Race for vaccine tests limits of drug innovation

AFP, Paris
Race for vaccine tests limits of drug innovation
Dozens of pharmaceuticals and research labs across the world are racing to develop a vaccine. AFP photo

From medical workers struggling to care for the rising tide of COVID-19 patients to the billions of people told to stay home to slow the pandemic, everyone is waiting for one thing: a vaccine. There is no known treatment for the new coronavirus that emerged in China late last year and has since proliferated across the planet, infecting more than half a million people and claiming more than 30,000 lives.

In mid-January, researchers from China published the genetic sequence of the virus, firing the starting gun for dozens of research labs across the world in the race to find effective drugs. The approaches have varied dramatically. Some teams are looking at the effects of existing medicines as potential treatments, some are experimenting with repurposing common drugs. Others are using cutting-edge technologies to fashion radically new types of vaccines.

Just over 60 days after the genetic sequence of COVID-19 was shared, the first potential vaccine began human trials. World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed it “an incredible achievement” and experts have raised cautious hopes that a vaccine will be ready within 18 months.

This may seem like a dauntingly long time for those in the path of the virus. But Seth Berkley, the head of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, has cautioned that it normally takes between 10 and 15 years for a drug to go from development, through testing phases and onto licensing and large-scale manufacture, although the Ebola vaccine was ready in five.

“How lucky will we be in getting a good immune response? Which approaches will work? Will they be scalable?” he said in an interview with the TED organisation last week.

While the world will try to “squeeze it down dramatically”, the timeline will still depend on the testing process.

“There are many things we’re going to have to go through and it’s really about making sure that vaccine works and it is safe for use in what ultimately may be billions of people,” he said.

GAVI, which is making funding available for lower-income countries to respond to the coronavirus crisis, has urged world leaders to ensure potential treatments and vaccines are accessible to everyone.

Amid concerns over a shortfall in global cooperation over the virus, G20 nations on Thursday announced a $5-trillion injection to boost the global economy and pledged to “work together to increase research and development funding for vaccines and medicines”.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global organisation based in Oslo, has called for $2 billion to support the development of a vaccine. Meanwhile, the United States is funding several companies through its Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The traditional method for developing vaccines, based on principles dating back to smallpox vaccine in 1796, has been to introduce a modified part of the infectious agent to stimulate the body’s immune system without doing harm.

But an emerging technique aims to trigger this immune response in a different way, by incorporating a strand of the virus’ genetic material.

Within weeks of Chinese researchers making the genome of the virus public, a team at the University of Texas at Austin was able to create a replica model of its spike protein, the part which attatches to and infects human cells, and image it using a cryogenic (cooled) electron microscope. This replica itself is now the basis for a vaccine candidate. NIH is working with Moderna, a relatively new firm founded in 2010, to make a vaccine using the protein’s genetic information to grow it inside human muscle tissue, rather than having to inject it in.

This information is stored in an intermediary transient substance called “messenger RNA” that carries genetic code from DNA to cells.

“The advantage is that it’s really fast,” Jason McLellan, who led the UT Austin team, told AFP.

The human trials began this month and if all goes to plan, it could be available in about a year and a half, according to NIH’s Anthony Fauci.

French drugmaker Sanofi is using a different genetic approach. It is partnering with the US government to use a so-called “recombinant DNA platform” to produce a vaccine candidate. It takes the virus’ DNA and combines it with DNA from a harmless virus, creating a chimera that can provoke an immune response. The antigens it produces can then be scaled up.

The technology is already the basis of Sanofi’s influenza vaccine, and the firm believes it has a head start due to a SARS vaccine it developed that offered partial protection in animals.

While the world waits for a vaccine, scientists are experimenting with other existing drugs in the hunt for treatments for severely ill patients.

The WHO has selected four drugs or combinations for a large scale global trial involving patients from Argentina to Thailand.

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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