With several companies progressing through Phase III clinical trials, the much-awaited coronavirus vaccines may finally become reality within a few months.
But some scientists question whether these vaccines will produce a strong and long-lasting immunity, especially if they aren't efficient at mobilizing T-cells, the body's defense soldiers.
"When I look at those vaccines there are pitfalls in every one of them," says Deborah Fuller, professor of microbiology at the Washington University School of Medicine. "Some may induce only transient antibodies, some may not be very good at inducing T-cell responses, and others may not immunize the elderly very well."
Generally, vaccines work by introducing an antigen into the body—either a dead or attenuated pathogen that can't replicate, or parts of the pathogen or its proteins, which the body will recognize as foreign. The pathogens or its parts are usually discovered by cells that chew up the intruders and present them to the immune system fighters, B- and T-cells—like a trespasser's mug shot to the police. In response, B-cells make antibodies to neutralize the virus, and a specialized "crew" called memory B-cells will remember the antigen. Meanwhile, an army of various T-cells attacks the pathogens as well as the cells these pathogens already infected. Special helper T-cells help stimulate B-cells to secrete antibodies and activate cytotoxic T-cells that release chemicals called inflammatory cytokines that kill pathogens and cells they infected.
"Each of these components of the immune system are important and orchestrated to talk to each other," says professor Larry Corey, who studies vaccines and infectious disease at Fred Hutch, a non-profit scientific research organization. "They optimize the assault of the human immune system on the complexity of the viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections that live on our planet, to which we get exposed."
Despite their variety, coronaviruses share certain common proteins and other structural elements, Fuller explains, which the immune system can be trained to identify.
The current frontrunner vaccines aim to train our body to generate a sufficient amount of antibodies to neutralize the virus by shutting off its spike proteins before it enters our cells and begins to replicate. But a truly robust vaccine should also engender a strong response from T-cells, Fuller believes.
"Everyone focuses on the antibodies which block the virus, but it's not always 100 percent effective," she explains. "For example, if there are not enough titers or the antibody starts to wane, and the virus does get into the cells, the cells will become infected. At that point, the body needs to mount a robust T-cytotoxic response. The T-cells should find and recognize cells infected with the virus and eliminate these cells, and the virus with them."
Some of the frontrunner vaccine makers including Moderna, AstraZeneca and CanSino reported that they observed T-cell responses in their trials. Another company, BioNTech, based in Germany, also reported that their vaccine produced T-cell responses.
Fuller and her team are working on their own version of a coronavirus vaccine. In their recent study, the team managed to trigger a strong antibody and T-cell response in mice and primates. Moreover, the aging animals also produced a robust response, which would be important for the human elderly population.
But Fuller's team wants to engage T-cells further. She wants to try training T-cells to recognize not only SARV-CoV-2, but a range of different coronaviruses. Wild hosts, such as bats, carry many different types of coronaviruses, which may spill over onto humans, just like SARS, MERS and SARV-CoV-2 have. There are also four coronaviruses already endemic to humans. Cryptically named 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1, they were identified in the 1960s. And while they cause common colds and aren't considered particularly dangerous, the next coronavirus that jumps species may prove deadlier than the previous ones.
Despite their variety, coronaviruses share certain common proteins and other structural elements, Fuller explains, which the immune system can be trained to identify. "T-cells can recognize these shared sequences across multiple different types of coronaviruses," she explains, "so we have this vision for a universal coronavirus vaccine."
Paul Offit at Children's Hospitals in Philadelphia, who specializes in infectious diseases and vaccines, thinks it's a far shot at the moment. "I don't see that as something that is likely to happen, certainly not very soon," he says, adding that a universal flu vaccine has been tried for decades but is not available yet. We still don't know how the current frontrunner vaccines will perform. And until we know how efficient they are, wearing masks and keeping social distance are still important, he notes.
Corey says that while the universal coronavirus vaccine is not impossible, it is certainly not an easy feat. "It is a reasonably scientific hypothesis," he says, but one big challenge is that there are still many unknown coronaviruses so anticipating their structural elements is difficult. The structure of new viruses, particularly the recombinant ones that leap from wild hosts and carry bits and pieces of animal and human genetic material, can be hard to predict. "So whether you can make a vaccine that has universal T-cells to every coronavirus is also difficult to predict," Corey says. But, he adds, "I'm not being negative. I'm just saying that it's a formidable task."
Fuller is certainly up to the task and thinks it's worth the effort. "T-cells can cross-recognize different viruses within the same family," she says, so increasing their abilities to home in on a broader range of coronaviruses would help prevent future pandemics. "If that works, you're just going to take one [vaccine] and you'll have lifetime immunity," she says. "Not just against this coronavirus, but any future pandemic by a coronavirus."
In July 1956, a new drug hit the European market for the first time. The drug was called thalidomide – a sedative that was considered so safe it was available without a prescription.
Sedatives were in high demand in post-war Europe – but barbiturates, the most widely-used sedative at the time, caused overdoses and death when consumers took more than the recommended amount. Thalidomide, on the other hand, didn't appear to cause any side effects at all: Chemie Grünenthal, thalidomide's manufacturer, dosed laboratory rodents with over 600 times the normal dosage during clinical testing and had observed no evidence of toxicity.
The drug therefore was considered universally safe, and Grünenthal supplied thousands of doctors with samples to give to their patients. Doctors were encouraged to recommend thalidomide to their pregnant patients specifically because it was so safe, in order to relieve the nausea and insomnia associated with the first trimester of pregnancy.
Niko von Glasow, born in 1960, is a German film director and producer who was born disabled due to the side effects of thalidomide.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.