INFECTIONS
April 13, 2020

The Hunt for a COVID-19 Vaccine

A vaccine that stimulates the immune system is creating immunity to COVID-19 in mice.

One of the few bits of encouraging news about COVID-19 is that several vaccines that may prevent the disease are in various stages of testing.

One of these comes from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where scientists have developed a vaccine that causes mice to produces antibodies targeted at the virus responsible for COVID-19, in amounts that they think are sufficient to neutralize it. They also think the vaccine could be mass-produced a lot quicker than expected, if it proves to be safe and effective.

Mice began to show an immune response against the COVID-19-causing virus about two weeks after injection.

Like the flu vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine uses viral protein to provoke an immune response. It has succeeded in getting mice to produce a surge of antibodies that are specific to the virus. The researchers can't call it effective yet, or say that it protects the mice; there aren't even agreed-upon ways to measure the effectiveness of antibodies against the novel coronavirus yet. These are uncharted waters, though for this team the waters are a bit less uncharted because they've been studying coronaviruses for over 15 years.

“We had previous experience on SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014. These two viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, teach us that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus. We knew exactly where to fight this new virus,” co-senior author, Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said in a statement. “That's why it's important to fund vaccine research. You never know where the next pandemic will come from.”

Mice began to show an immune response against the COVID-19-causing virus about two weeks after injection. And while the long-term effects of the vaccine have not yet been tested, they will be.

The scientists point out that mice who got their MERS-CoV vaccine produced a sufficient level of antibodies to neutralize that virus for at least a year, and so far the antibody levels of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccinated animals seem to be following the same trend.

“Recently announced revisions to the normal processes suggest we may be able to advance this faster.”

They expect large amounts of the vaccine could be produced quickly, another plus. The vaccine won't spoil easily — once manufactured, it can be kept at room temperature until it's needed, eliminating the need for refrigeration during transport or storage.

The researchers anticipate starting a phase I human clinical trial in the next few months.

“Testing in patients would typically require at least a year and probably longer,” remarked co-senior author, Louis Falo,Jr., professor and chair of dermatology at the School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “This particular situation is different from anything we've ever seen, so we don't know how long the clinical development process will take. Recently announced revisions to the normal processes suggest we may be able to advance this faster.”

Several other types of vaccines are also being developed. A vaccine based on RNA and another that uses DNA have recently entered clinical trials — and have started testing in humans. There are still others in the works as well; so things are moving along, perhaps faster than you may have heard. And scientists are not putting all their eggs in the same basket.

For more details on the Pittsburgh vaccine, see the article in the open access journal EBioMedicine.

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