With the wave of negativity flooding the media as of late — and with good reason — let’s talk about some good news regarding the coronavirus pandemic: The first clinical trials to develop a vaccine are underway, and a massive effort is being put forth worldwide to create more vaccines that use a variety of pre-existing and novel strategies to prevent disease.
On March 16, Jennifer Haller became the first person outside of China to receive a coronavirus vaccine. Developed by Moderna, a well-financed biotech company in the U.S., the vaccine candidate contains a portion of the virus’ genetic code that does not cause disease, allowing the host’s cells to develop immunity to the virus without causing symptoms. CanSino Biologics, a company in China, also began their clinical trials on the same day. In addition to these efforts, the World Health Organization has put together a table of other vaccine candidates that could soon follow suit, with 52 different vaccines proposed as of March 31.
The race to develop strategies that will prevent and/or treat the coronavirus (COVID-19) that is crippling countries worldwide is proceeding at an unprecedented rate. Three days after Chinese scientists released the complete RNA sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, immunologist Barney Graham proposed a gene to Moderna that led to the vaccine currently in clinical trials, which began only 63 days later. Graham developed a Zika virus vaccine in 2016 that went from the laboratory to a patient’s arm within 190 days, a record that he claims “we beat… by nearly 130 days”.
The other proposed vaccines come from a variety of sources including biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, academia and military researchers. They employ different strategies such as old techniques that involve weakened or inactivated viruses of interest and novel approaches such as mRNA technology, which uses pieces of the genetic code present in the virus to educate the host’s immune system about the pathogen and allow it to fight the virus once it actually enters the body.
Johnson & Johnson (J&J), a multinational corporation that develops medical devices, pharmaceuticals and other goods, has announced a COVID-19 vaccine project that could involve $1 billion. If certain milestones are met along the way, the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority will provide about half of these funds.
Some people worry that vaccine development will be ineffective due to the ability of viruses to mutate, creating an ever-moving target that prevents scientists from reliably preventing disease. For example, different strains of the flu often mutate at rapid rates, causing flu vaccines to be rendered ineffective or only partially effective as the flu season progresses.
Luckily this does not appear to be the case for SARS-CoV-2. While the virus does mutate, it does so at a slow enough rate that scientists are optimistic that a vaccine will be effective at protecting the population. While SARS-CoV-2 has already mutated a few times throughout this pandemic, the changes appear to be minor and unlikely to cause any difference in vaccine response. Part of the reason for this slow mutation rate is that the virus carries its genetic material in one genomic strand, whereas the flu stores its code in eight segments. If different strains of the flu enter the same cell, this allows for more likely swapping of genetic material and the creation of a novel strain, but this method of change appears to play a less important factor for SARS-CoV-2.
Another common concern is whether people can actually develop long-term immunity to SARS-CoV-2 through the immune response. Infection with the versions of coronavirus that cause mild cold-like symptoms does not appear to result in long-term immunity. However, the virus that causes COVID-19 often migrates to the lower respiratory tract, where the body often has a stronger immune response and produces more antibodies to fight infection. This will likely result in vaccines producing a long-lasting effect in patients, but if this is not the case, booster shots could become available to refresh the ability of the host to prevent disease.
While it will likely take over a year at best for these vaccines to be made available to the public, these efforts signify our first retaliations against coronavirus that will allow us to win the war against the disease rather than struggling in damage-control mode. For now, we must stay at home and remain hopeful. Ultimately, we will make it through this.
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Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.