By Michela Reinink
As Covid-19 spreads rapidly across the world, many drug development groups are racing to have their vaccine ready for market first. There are several promising vaccine leads, as well as medications in the works for those who have contracted Covid-19 already. The question now, is how effective will the vaccines be, and can they be ready in time to reduce the severity of this outbreak?
The leading group in this global effort is the American company Moderna, who have partnered with the National Institute of Health (NIH), and received funding to manufacture a batch of their vaccine candidate big enough for Phase 1 (of 3) clinical trials. These trials started recently and are being performed on 45 healthy participants. Moderna has been able to move into the clinical trial stage at such a fast pace as a result of Chinese researchers uploading the genome code of the coronavirus to an international database just days after the virus was discovered.
The vaccine currently being developed by Moderna is an mRNA vaccine. The Covid-19 virus is encapsulated, with spike proteins on the surface of the capsule, which are used by the virus to recognize human cells. These spike proteins are also the first thing recognized by human antibodies in an immune response. The vaccine contains genetic coding for the spike protein. So in theory, if you inject the mRNA vaccine, it will use machinery in the cells to make the spike protein, which the antibodies will then attack. Once the antibodies have recognized the spike proteins from the vaccine, if in the future the person contracts the Covid-19, their antibodies will recognize the spike proteins again, and launch an immune response.
Phase 2 clinical trials for this vaccine will include more participants and will principally test for three things: whether it can protect against the coronavirus, how effective it is, and what possible side effects could be.
Another lab group from the University of Queensland in Australia is taking a different approach. They are including an isolated synthetic form of the spike protein in the vaccine, in the hopes that this will provoke a stronger immune response. They plan to start clinical trials this summer. Other groups, including include Inovio, J&J’s Janssen, Sanofi and Pfizer have also received research grants and are working towards creating similar vaccines.
Vaccines are not the only solutions being explored; medications to help those already infected with Covid-19 are also being worked on. One example is a drug called Remdesivir, which is already in Phase 3 of clinical trials, as it was originally developed to combat Ebola, but has previously shown success against other coronaviruses.
Results from the Remdesivir tests are set to be released next month. So far, one person has reported recovering after being treated.
Donald Trump is pushing for the FDA to approve Hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus, which is a malaria drug. It is an antiviral drug that has shown some success in treating Covid-19. However, even though it already has market approval, another clinical trial is needed for approved use on Covid-19 patients.
Health officials estimate that it will take 1.5 years to have a vaccine ready for the market, though some more optimistic researchers (ambitiously) say they are aiming to have one ready in as little as a year. The rate at which research is taking place is unprecedented compared to the rate that vaccines were developed in other health crises. In 2002, during the SARS-CoV outbreak, it took 20 months to take the vaccine to Phase 1 of clinical trials. With Zika, for which drug development was much faster, it took 7 months to get a vaccine ready for testing. Compare that to Covid-19 progress, where researchers at Moderna had a potential vaccine ready for Phase 1 of clinical trials on January 13, 2020, only 2 days after the genetic sequence of Covid-19 was uploaded. The rapid pace of drug development provides hope to many that there are solutions to this global pandemic.