The coronavirus has ground social, economic and educational exchanges to a halt around the world. For now, public health officials are relying on tools like social distancing to minimize the harm of the virus, but in the long term, a COVID-19 vaccine is the best hope of a return to normalcy.
It normally takes a few years to development a vaccine, but in the face of the coronavirus, biotechnology companies and regulatory agencies are taking aggressive steps to make a COVID-19 vaccine widely available sooner than that.
I study biomanufacturing and synthetic biology, and it is fascinating to watch this unprecedented effort push at the limits of vaccine development. Public and private labs around the world are pursuing cutting-edge vaccine engineering strategies that have never been tested on such a large scale. If these efforts succeed, the vaccine would become an essential tool to fight or prevent future COVID epidemics.
How Vaccines Work
The first time the body is exposed to a new virus, it takes weeks to build antibodies and other defense mechanisms that will fight it off. This gives the virus plenty of time to replicate and make someone sick.
However, the immune system has memory. If it has encountered a virus before, the body can quickly deploy its defenses against the invader and neutralize the virus before a full infection develops.
This is the idea behind vaccines: give the body an opportunity to build defenses against a virus it may encounter in the future. Not all vaccines produce the same level of immunological preparedness — the stronger the initial immune response, the better the vaccine — but some preparation is better than none.
The traditional way of developing a vaccine is to grow and inject patients with inactivated viruses. These don’t make you sick, but once exposed to these “dead” viruses, the immune system will have the weapons to fight off that virus in the future, if it needs to.
Unfortunately, figuring out how to grow a new virus on an industrial scale is complicated, and once done, the process itself is often slow, difficult, and potentially risky. For example, the flu vaccine is produced by growing the virus in millions of chicken eggs. The process takes four months. In addition, when dealing with a virus for which there is no drug or vaccine, it is safer to avoid growing it in large quantities for fear that it might accidentally leak out of the factory and make the situation even worse than it already is.
With the coronavirus literally making time a matter of life and death, nearly 50 public and private labs are turning to newer, safer, and faster methods to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
Rather than injecting the whole virus, it is possible to vaccinate a person with a single virus component. The pieces most commonly used are proteins from the surface of a virus. If a live virus enters the body, these surface proteins are easily recognized by the immune system. This approach is easier, faster, and safer because the virus protein can be produced in cell cultures.
Protein-based vaccines, also known as recombinant vaccines, are already used to vaccinate against viral infections like HPV. They are far simpler to produce compared to traditional whole-virus vaccines, but it can still take a year to develop a new process and several weeks to produce the vaccine after the manufacturing process has been developed. The world needs something faster.Two companies, Sanofi and Novawax, are both developing protein vaccines based on the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, the tower-shaped structures on the surface of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.