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The race to find a Covid-19 vaccine

by Julia Kinghan

How are we fighting Coronavirus?

While the world goes into lockdown a lot of us might be wondering when things will go back to normal. In some ways, it might never, but at the very least there will come a day when a Corona cure will save the day. 'When?' you ask. Well, here's everything you need to know about the worldwide race to find the Covid-19 Vaccine.

Historically, vaccines take a long time to produce. According to a report by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia the traditional method of vaccine development can generally take 2-4 years to research with another 2 years of pre-clinical testing. Once the vaccine has been accepted to preliminary standards it must apply for permission to begin regulated human trials. WHO standard regulations and observations for vaccine development require vaccines to go through at least three phases of trial testing. If the vaccine is approved in all these phases it may only then begin to be manufactured. The entire process may take up to 15 years to complete.

If vaccines take so long to develop why have there been projections that the world will have a Covid-19 vaccine within approximately 18 months?

In response to the huge spreading capability of Covid-19 and its threat to lives and economic stability, scientists around the world have been working around the clock engineering new forms and solutions to the outbreak. Official time limitations on testing have been reconstructed to create a faster trial process to speed up the manufacturing of approved vaccines.

In an article on the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, one of the world's leading benefactors towards Covid-19 vaccine development projects, explains the process needed to create a viable vaccine for the pandemic. Currently, there are over 100 different teams around the world working on different possible Coronavirus cures. Three of these teams have produced possible Covid-19 vaccines that have successfully passed preliminary trials and are ready to start Phase II and III trials.

Of the three vaccine front-runners, the first SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) vaccine to go through Phase I trials was a potential vaccine developed by researchers from several Chinese Institutions. The first human trials began in early March and, as reported by Medical News Today, the initial findings appear to be positive.

The vaccine is developed by using a common virus or ‘adenovirus’ that can no longer replicate as a base. Using a virus that can no longer replicate and therefore is unable to infect healthy cells the developers can then reproduce SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins on the virus base. When the vaccine is injected the body will learn to recognise and fight the SARS-Cov-2 proteins. With results suggesting the vaccine may be effective with little to no health repercussions, the vaccine is approved to start Phase II clinical trials.

Another developing vaccine with high potential is being developed by a group of researchers at Oxford University. The development of the Oxford vaccine is similar to that of the vaccine developed in China. Using a common cold 'adenovirus' that affects chimpanzees as its base. Changes in the virus's DNA make it impossible to replicate in humans and it is then genetically engineered to possess SARS-CoV-2 characteristics known as 'spike glycoprotein' recognisable to the immune system. The University recently announced that the vaccine’s Phase I trial had been successful and that they will be moving forward with Phase II and Phase III trials.

Despite the Oxford vaccine not having been approved by all trials, AstraZeneca has initiated the starting phases of the vaccine’s mass-production. The manufacturing of a vaccine before its approval in all trial phases is unorthodox due to the financial risks it would pose to the manufacturing company. However, due to the urgent need for a vaccine and the promising initial trials, AstraZeneca has begun early manufacturing in order for the vaccine to be immediately available upon its approval.

On the 21st of May AstraZeneca announced its agreement to supply at least 400 million doses of the vaccine around Europe, free of profit, should the vaccine be approved. They further announced on the 13th of June that they were working towards building new supply chains in order to distribute the vaccine globally. An agreed license with the Serum Institute of India secures the distribution of 1 billion doses for the principal use of low to middle income countries. Currently AstraZeneca has a manufacturing capacity of 2 billion doses. AstraZeneca hopes to begin distributing vaccine doses as early as September.

The third potential vaccine is different from the others. It is developed by Moderna, a US biotechnology company. Unlike the other vaccines which are based on weakened DNA strains of genetically modified viruses, Moderna’s development process uses mRNA vaccine technology.

A definition of RNA Vaccines from Nature states, “RNA vaccines are composed of the nucleic acid RNA, which encode antigen genes of an infectious agent. When administered to host cells, the RNA is translated into protein antigens that elicit protective immunity against the infectious agent.”

Unlike a traditional vaccine, which uses a weakened version of alien DNA to train the immune system to produce antibodies, an RNA vaccine will directly insert a gene that produces antibodies directly into the body. A study by the University of Cambridge's PHG foundation into RNA vaccines reveals that they can be produced at faster rates than traditional vaccines and can be standardised to worldwide manufacturing making them easier to produce in multiple locations. However, it is a new method of vaccine development and therefore there are unknowns that need to be heavily supervised and regulated to avoid unintended immune reactions.

Moderna’s vaccine began Phase I testing in Mid-March and suggested positive effects against Covid-19 with no noticeable health risk. The Moderna vaccine will be joining the other-front runners in Phase II trials promptly.

The race for a vaccine is speeding ahead at unprecedented rates, but will we soon have the perfect cure?

Probably not. Most vaccines are not perfect and when the Corona Vaccine(s) are released they are unlikely to be perfect either. Even after its release, the vaccine will continue to be developed and engineered to become more effective. Upon its release, the vaccine(s) may be prioritised to health-workers and individuals at high-risk. 18 months may seem a long time, but in vaccine development terms it is a rapid response.

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