So close, yet so far
Iftikhar Ahmed
The beginning of 2020 has seen the outbreak of COVID-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. There is an imminent need to better understand this new virus to develop ways to control its spread. Evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 spreads easily and cause life-threatening illness in some people.
Moreover, SARS-CoV-2 multiplies faster in the body even when the infected do not show symptoms. The infected can also pass on the virus even if they never show the symptoms at all. Some people have mild to moderate symptoms while others have severe symptoms.
The disease generally causes serious problems in older people or those having health problems. But occasionally, it strikes down young, apparently healthy individuals. Some researchers believe that the virus is more threatening to individuals with specific genetic makeup, which leaves them more vulnerable.
There has so far been no available vaccine for COVID-19 although several clinical trials of vaccines are conducted to evaluate the potential therapeutics for COVID-19.
Scientists are seeking hard to gain insight into the potential therapeutics for SARS-CoV-2 by considering the high genetic similarity between SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV, which caused the SARS outbreak in 2003, and by leveraging the existing immunological studies of SARS-CoV. No ratified vaccines now exist to prevent the infection. Some investigational vaccines are developed using a genetic platform called mRNA, or messenger RNA. Research come out in volumes aiming at evolving coronavirus vaccines.
The works keep on pursuing different types of vaccines and a good number of them use technologies to ensure a triggering off of a specific immune response to the virulent strains of the COVID-19 viral agent. Continued experimental studies also try to confer the availability of temporary vaccines that could offer protection for an interim period.
The first human trial of a vaccine to protect against the new coronavirus has started in the United States. Four patients received the jab at the Kaiser Permanente research facility in Seattle, Washington. The vaccine cannot cause COVID-19 but contains a harmless genetic code copied from the virus that causes the disease.
Scientists working on it think that it will still take months to establish if this vaccine, or others also in research, works.
The vaccine in question contains synthetic RNA transcripts that code for a viral protein with an objective that the recipient cells will translate the mRNA into protein and their immune systems will be endowed while producing immunity against subsequent encounters with the viral protein. If initial safety tests go well, about a year to a year and a half before any vaccine could be ready for mass use, according to director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Although such challenging initiations still would be a record-setting pace, all know that the time is required because it takes additional studies to state if a vaccine protects without causing any harm. The trials evaluate different doses of the experimental vaccine for safety and its ability to elicit an immunological response in volunteers.
The vaccine is called mRNA-1273 and has been developed by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases scientists and their collaborators at the biotechnology company Moderna, Inc, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations supported the manufacturing of the vaccine candidate for Phase 1 clinical trial. This was the first of multiple steps in the clinical trial process for evaluating the potential benefit of the vaccine. The new coronavirus is spherical and has spikes protruding from its surface, giving the particles a crown-like appearance.
The spike (S protein) binds to specific receptors of human cells, allowing the virus to gain entry. VRC and Moderna scientists have already worked on an investigational MERS vaccine targeting the spike, which provided a head-start for developing a vaccine candidate to protect against COVID-19. Once the genetic information of COVID-19 becomes available, scientists would quickly select a sequence to express the stabilised S protein of the virus in the existing mRNA platform.
The investigational vaccine directs the body’s immunocompetent cells to express a viral protein that it is hoped to mediate a robust immune response.
The volunteers were requested to return to the clinic for follow-up visits between vaccinations and for additional visits across the span of a year after the second shot. Clinicians will be monitoring volunteers for common vaccination symptoms such as soreness at the injection site or fever as well as any other medical issues.
A protocol team will meet regularly to review safety data and a safety monitoring committee will also periodically review trial data and advise the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Volunteers of the far-out works would also be instructed to provide blood samples at specified times which investigators will test to detect and measure the immune response to the experimental vaccine.
COVID-19 spreads fast and it does not wait for clinical trials or scientific journals to publish results. But even if scientists can celebrate having developed a vaccine before 2021, there is still the massive job of being able to produce it on a larger scale. All of this happens on an unprecedented timescale using new approaches to vaccines. So, there are no guarantees that everything will go smoothly.
The best way to save lives is to share meaningful data in real time. A systemic change in sharing data, a data revolution, can save thousands of lives.