Whilst therapeutic treatments are being researched to help patients who are suffering severe problems due to Covid-19, the real solution to this disease is the development of an effective vaccine. At the time of writing, October 2020, there are over 150 different teams working across the world in order to find one. Vaccines usually take many years to develop but because of the need to find one quickly and the fact that a huge amount of money is being spent on research, about 10 of them are already into the final Phase 3 human testing stage.
Two that show a lot of promise are being developed in the United Kingdom; one at Oxford University and another at Imperial College in London. They have approached the problem from different angles but are showing some early success in the laboratory. Although different, they are both being developed to target the spikes sticking out from the virus particles that were discussed in an earlier article.
The research based in Oxford under Professor Sarah Gilbert is aimed to work in the following way. They have taken a common cold virus which is prevalent in chimpanzees and weakened it. Next they made some genetic modifications to the cold virus which means that only the spikes are produced and not the rest of the Covid-19 virus.
When it is injected into a patient, they will not catch the disease but the immune system will recognise the spikes as intruders and produce antibodies against them. Then in the future, if the vaccinated person comes into contact with the real virus, the antibodies present will render it ineffective. The team at Oxford are quietly confident that this will work but of course, nothing is guaranteed.
The project at Imperial College under Professor Robin Shattock is different but still relies on the body recognising the spikes from the virus and producing antibodies to fight future infections. The major difference in approach is that the Imperial group of researchers want the vaccine to instruct the patient’s body to produce the spikes without the accompanying virus and from this, the body to produce the antibodies.
Therefore the vaccine consists of strands of genetic material which instructs the patient’s muscle cells to produce the spikes. If you remember from a previous article, the virus hijacks a cell’s manufacturing ability to produce more virus particles. In this case, the vaccine instructs the cell to produce just the spikes. Professor Shattock in a recent television interview was also quietly optimistic. Both teams are hoping to be very close to an answer by the end of 2020 or early 2021.
In addition, another vaccine being produced by research companies including Pfizer is also getting close to completing their final trials. Early reports say that the production of both antibodies and T-Killer cells is very promising. It is likely that we will end up with a variety of vaccines which will work and we may find that different ones are more suitable for different groups of people. We may also have to have booster shots in the future like the seasonal flu vaccine. To date, we have identified about four strains of the virus but laboratory experiments are showing that many of the vaccines are effective against all strains.
As I said before, there are many other teams across the world working on various ways to produce a viable and effective vaccine. From what we understand of the virus, an effective vaccine will be the answer to this problem. But until then, remember to wash your hands with soap, wear a face mask in indoor and crowded areas and try to maintain a gap of 2 metres from the person next to you.
In this way, we will stop the virus from spreading. And soon, with everyone doing their part and the amazing science which is taking place around the world, we will emerge from this pandemic and resume a more normal life.