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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Covid-19 vaccine: The search for a coronavirus cure

Coronavirus (Covid-19) Vaccine: At the earliest, we are 12-18 months away from developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, but global efforts raise hope that we could emerge on the other side of the pandemic.

Written by Leela Murali | New Delhi | Updated: May 15, 2020 1:50:56 pm
coronavirus vaccine An illustration of the coronavirus. It is important to understand the structure of the virus to develop a vaccination or drug that could fight it. (File Photo)

Coronavirus (Covid-19) Vaccine: In the Covid-19 story, there are three possibilities that lie ahead: One, communities develop immunity against the disease, two, a drug is invented to contain the disease, and three, a vaccine is made available. At the earliest, we are 12-18 months away from developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, but global efforts raise hope that we could emerge on the other side of the pandemic.

There are some 100 research groups across the world racing to develop a vaccine. These projects are in various stages of development, from research to clinical trials.

So, first, what is a vaccine?

Vaccines are biological products that are introduced in the body to act against toxins released by a pathogen. It teaches the immune system to identify a disease-causing pathogen and store in memory which fightback options are the most effective. Some vaccines are live pathogens; they don’t cause any harm, but the body can recognise it and act.

For example, the yellow fever vaccine is a live, weakened yellow fever virus; the BCG vaccine too is a live attenuated strain derived from an isolate of Mycobacterium bovis used widely as a vaccine for tuberculosis. The polio vaccine has the killed virus.

coronavirus vaccine Scientists at Cobra Biologics are working on a potential vaccine for COVID-19, in Keele, Britain, April 30, 2020. (Reuters Photo: Carl Recine)

Why is vaccination important?

Vaccines allow vulnerable people to obtain immunity from a disease without getting sick. When vaccines are administered, there is no longer a need to put in resources to prevent the disease. It also releases pressure on the healthcare system to treat patients who are ill.

How are vaccines developed?

Vaccines usually take years to develop. After research, it is tested on animals and then undergoes human trials — a controversial method of intentionally injecting the virus into people.

Each vaccine has to be tested for safety and efficacy in three phases — in phase one, small groups of people receive the trial vaccine; in phase two, it is administered to those who have characteristics similar to whom the new vaccine is intended; and in phase three, it is injected into several thousand people. Finally, researchers also analyse post-marketing data.

We must not forget that there is also a business side to vaccines. The SARS and Zika epidemics ended before vaccine could be developed, leaving manufacturers at a financial loss as funding agencies pulled out of the projects. This also derailed other vaccine-development programmes.

coronavirus vaccine A volunteer is injected with either an experimental Covid-19 vaccine or a comparison shot as part of the first human trials in the UK to test a potential vaccine, led by Oxford University in England on April 25, 2020. (University of Oxford via AP)

Which countries are developing coronavirus vaccines?

The United States, China, Germany, the United Kingdom and even India are in the process of developing vaccines.

The University of Oxford is researching whether a vaccine that was originally developed for MERS, another coronavirus, could be administered during this pandemic. Called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, this vaccine would help the body recognise the “spikes” of the virus which are made of protein. As it was already being developing for MERS, it passed the initial stages and is now in the clinical trial phase.

In Germany, a vaccine named BNT162 is in the clinical trial stage. It is being developed by US-based Pfizer and the German company BioNtech.

Also read | How coronavirus attacks, step by step 

In the US, a vaccine, mRNA-1273, is being developed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), in collaboration with biotech company Moderna.

Meanwhile, US agency Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority is funding French pharmaceutical group Sanofi to use its existing technology to create a vaccine for the coronavirus. The technology was originally designed for influenza.

Another vaccine is being developed by Novavax, the NVX-COV2373 vaccine. It is ready to start human tests after finding promising results from its animal trials. At least 130 Australians have reportedly volunteered to test the vaccine.

China is working on a way to introduce the coronavirus into the body, without its potent elements, to help generate a natural immune response against an actual infection. Researchers at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, affiliated to China’s People’s Liberation Army, are working with Hong Kong-listed firm CanSino Biologics on the project.

There are also studies underway to see whether the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, which has been used for tuberculosis, protects against the coronavirus.

Israel-based Tel Aviv University has entered into a partnership with Swiss-based bio pharmaceutical company Neovii to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. (Read latest news on vaccine development here)

Coronavirus Vaccine, Covid-19 Vaccine in India

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on Sunday, May 9, 2020 said it had partnered with Bharat Biotech International Limited (MMIL) to develop an indigenous Covid-19 vaccine using the virus strain isolated at the National Institute of Virology (NIV), in Pune.

“Work on vaccine development has been initiated. ICMR and BBIL will seek fast-track approvals to expedite vaccine development, subsequent animal studies and clinical evaluation of the candidate vaccine,” ICMR stated in a press release.

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