Research teams around the world race to develop COVID vaccine

Private-public partnerships work on developing effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Laurel Kornfeld | May 31, 2020

Research teams around the globe are working hard to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which has infected more than 5.9 million people worldwide and caused approximately 356,000 deaths since its first outbreak in Wuhan, China, late last year.

Formally known as SARS-CoV-2, the virus is part of the coronavirus family, named for the spiky proteins on their surfaces that resemble the points of a crown. The Latin word for crown is "corona."

Coronaviruses affect birds and mammals. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are also caused by coronaviruses.

When a person or animal is infected, genetic material inside COVID-19's round core is injected from the spikes into a host's vulnerable cells, causing the virus to take over those cells and use them to replicate itself.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 169 efforts are underway worldwide in pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine, but many researchers believe an effective one will not be developed and become available to the public until sometime in 2021.

Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said vaccine development usually takes approximately 20 years.

For example, the development of a vaccine for human papilloma virus took 26 years, and creation of one for rotavirus took 25 years, he noted.

Because more than 100 research groups are currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine, with some already testing them on people, the process this time will be much quicker.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced the launch of "Operation Warp Speed (OWS)," a public-private partnership aimed at accelerating the development,production, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021.

However, most experts believe that date is overly optimistic and do not envision vaccines becoming available before the spring of 2021 and possibly not until the fall of that year.

Vaccines work by exposing a person to proteins of the virus known as antigens, empowering their "memory cells" to recognize the virus upon exposure and activate a strong immune reaction.

Several methods are used to expose individuals to these antigens. Some vaccines inject people with the whole virus in a dead or damaged form. Others take the gene that codes for the antigen and place that into a less harmful virus that is then injected into a person.

Newer vaccine techniques, still considered experimental, use the RNA or DNA that codes for the antigen and places them inside a membrane with which people are injected.

While these new techniques take less time producing a vaccine, they have not yet been approved for public use.

Vaccines typically take a long time to produce because their development requires several phases to assure they are safe for people. Phase 1 involves testing for safety and the exact dose needed. Phase 2 involves testing on a larger group compared with a control group while Phase 3 requires the time needed for enough people to be naturally exposed to the virus.

To date, none of the possible vaccines are in Phase 3. The majority have not even reached Phase 1 and are still in the pre-clinical stages.

Among the leading efforts is Moderna, a biotech company that began working on a vaccine just three days after scientists sequenced the virus's genome. The company has not fully released its test results but reports eight volunteers given a COVID-19 RNA vaccine developed the necessary antibody responses.

Merck, an American pharmaceutical company, is working with the non-profit research group IAVI on a vaccine similar to its Ebola Zaire virus vaccine, the first for that disease approved for people. The company and its partner have pledged to make any vaccine they develop "accessible and affordable" around the world.

Currently, Merck is in the process of acquiring Themis, a company that focuses on vaccines.

CanSino, a Chinese company, is conducting Phase 1 clinical trials with a genetically engineered adenovirus vaccine modified with COVID-19's spikes. While this triggered an immune reaction in 108 healthy people, its weakness is that adenoviruses, which cause the common cold, are already widespread among the population, meaning many already have immunity to them.

The company's next step is a Phase 2 trial with 500 adults that will take six months.

Sinovac, another Chinese company, is pursuing the standard route of a vaccine made up of an inactivated form of the virus.

Oxford University, which is partnering with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, is also working on an adenovirus-based vaccine known as AZD1222 and claims the group can produce one billion doses if its vaccine is successful. With a $1 billion infusion from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), they are now conducting a Phase 3 trial involving 30,000 participants.

A vaccine Oxford developed alone via its Jenner Institute, ChAdOx1, protected rhesus monkeys from getting pneumonia after being infected with COVID-19 but failed to prevent them from contracting the virus. That is currently in Phase 1 trials using more than 1,000 volunteers.

Johnson and Johnson, which has the capability of producing large quantities of vaccines, plans to start Phase 1 trials in September. Together with its subsidiary Janssen, it is working on a genetically modified adenovirus vaccine.

Inovio is working on a DNA vaccine candidate, which has been successful in mice and guinea pigs and is now in the Phase 1 study using 40 volunteers.

A team of researchers at Harvard University is also working on various DNA vaccines, a new technology they are testing on rhesus macaque monkeys.

Curevac said it plans to start Phase 2/3 clinical trials of an mRNA vaccine on humans for a vaccine starting in June while Pfizer and BioNTech announced it has started Phase 1/2 trials of an mRNA vaccine on humans in the US and Germany.

These are just a few of the vaccine research projects underway by pharmaceutical companies and research institutes worldwide.