One of the main factors that will influence the ultimate trajectory of the novel coronavirus pandemic will be the availability of a vaccine.
Vaccines are incontrovertibly the best means to control infectious diseases and there are no human vaccines against any of the (now) 7 known human coronaviruses. As soon as the gravity of this outbreak was recognized, several companies, along with governmental and non-governmental partners, have embarked on a rapid development program to develop a vaccine targeted at this virus.
Vaccine development has traditionally been a process measured in years and even decades as scientists tinker with a pathogen trying to weaken or dissemble it to render it capable of creating an effective immune response with acceptable levels of side effects. However, in 2020, powerful new vaccine technologies are available to augment traditional vaccine development and are responsible for the rapid delivery of a vaccine candidate for the start of clinical trials.
Vaccine Platforms: A Game-Changing Technology
The new technologies that are being harnessed are what are known as vaccine platform technologies. Vaccine platforms, as my colleagues and I wrote in a report assessing their promise, offer a means to use the same building blocks to make more than one vaccine. To slightly oversimply, a vaccine platform confers the ability to switch out the pathogen being targeted very rapidly, akin to changing a video game cartridge. Indeed, the recently FDA-licensed Ebola vaccine uses another virus as a platform with the requisite Ebola protein inserted.
Because of this rapid availability to utilize platforms for a variety of different targets, the initial development process can be significantly shortened. This is especially true for vaccines utilizing the genetic material of the target alone. These DNA and RNA vaccines basically can be “printed” once the genetic sequence of the target is known.
An RNA vaccine is the approach being used by the Cambridge-based biotech company Moderna – which took just 42 days to produce an experimental vaccine candidate. Clinical testing is expected to begin next month on 45 healthy volunteers.
Another biotech, the Pennsylvania-based Inovio, is using a DNA approach. In essence, such vaccines involve the genetic material being injected and translated into a viral protein by human cells, which then prompt the immune system to make antibodies.
There are other approaches as well. One company, the Maryland-based Novavax, will use nanoparticles, while another is attempting to adapt an orally administered avian coronavirus vaccine and Johnson & Johnson is using different virus platforms to deliver coronavirus proteins (similar to their experimental Ebola vaccine).
At this stage, it is important for all approaches to be on the table in the hope that at least one makes it through clinical trials. There also may be a need for different types of vaccines for different populations.
Vaccines Will Still Take Time
Despite the quick development time made possible by the use of vaccine platforms, clinical testing for safety, efficacy, and dosing schedules will still take months to complete. After this process, the vaccine will need to be mass produced in large quantities to vaccinate, basically, the world. So, for all intents and purposes, we cannot expect to see an approved vaccine for at least a year or maybe longer if everything does not go perfectly well in clinical trials.
Once a vaccine is available, it will likely appear in batches to be distributed to those at highest risk for severe disease, such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions, as well as healthcare workers, first. At this time, it appears children are less likely to experience severe illness and they may not be the first targets for the vaccine but, if this virus is with us (as is predicted), coronavirus vaccination could become part of routine childhood vaccinations.
Changing Pandemic Trajectory
Vaccination will not come fast enough to impact the initial wave of the novel virus which may continue until summer approaches in temperate climates. However, it will be a crucial tool to blunt the impact of a future appearance in the following respiratory virus season. This reappearance is all but assured as this virus has adeptly established itself in human populations and is behaving like the community-acquired coronavirus that it is.
A Glimmer of Hope
When looking at the trajectory of the virus, it can appear, thus far, that no public health effort has made a substantial impact on the spread of the virus. However, that trajectory will change with the advent of an efficacious vaccine. Such a vaccine, especially if conferring protection against other human coronaviruses, may result in coronaviruses being taken off the table of biological threats altogether in the future.
Vaccine platform technologies offer a bright ray of hope in the bleak shadow of the pandemic and, if successful, will change the way the world approaches future pandemic threats with more rapid deployment of platform-based vaccines.