Innovation and Collaboration Fuel COVID-19 Vaccine Development on an Unprecedented Timeline


Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Charlotte Mineo, Staff Writer

Doctors and scientists from around the world are working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, as people wait with bated breath to see whether a vaccine can be developed in record time. Innovative efforts are underway in all steps of the vaccine production process. Success will be necessary in all vectors to produce a safe, effective, and timely product.

The New York Times reports that under typical development strategies, a COVID vaccine would not be available until 2036. Researchers are attempting to produce a COVID vaccine by August of 2021. This daunting task requires that a variety of time-saving measures be implemented at once. Researchers are building from previous work on the related coronaviruses that cause MERS and SARS. At the same time, safety tests, which usually occur in discrete phases, may be combined so that regulatory steps are more efficient. The federal government may also expedite the vaccine review process. On the commercial side, pharmaceutical companies may take a gamble on vaccine candidates by building the factories and specialized equipment required to produce them before the vaccines are even approved.   

A variety of vaccine types are being pursued in parallel to maximize chances of success. Candidates range from a traditional live-attenuated virus, to a new type of mRNA-based vaccine. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery wrote on April 9th that 115 vaccine candidates are being developed by research teams around the world. Most developers plan to begin testing in humans during 2020. 

On April 30, Oxford University announced a new partnership with the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Scientists at Oxford are moving quickly to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, which will be mass-produced by AstraZeneca if the vaccine meets efficacy and safety benchmarks. The collaborative effort is centered around a vaccine candidate called ChAdOx1. The vaccine is made of a coronavirus DNA inserted into a weakened version of the common cold virus. COVID-19 proteins will be present on the outside of the virus surface, so that the body’s immune system can recognize it and learn to respond. After exposure to the vaccine, the immune system should produce proteins called antibodies that will recognize and attack the virus to prevent illness, should they be exposed to COVID-19. 

Some scientists are hopeful about a new type of vaccine, one never before approved for human use. The proposition is risky, but if effective, the vaccine would be faster and easier to manufacture than more traditional vaccines, according to the New York Times. ModernaTX Inc is developing an mRNA vaccine called mRNA-1273. Information from indicates that the vaccine consists of a lipid nanoparticle encasing a strand of RNA that provides instructions for producing spike proteins from COVID-19. This spike protein will be produced in human cells so that the immune system can recognize the foreign molecule and learn to respond to it. The University of Cambridge emphasizes that these vaccines have the potential to be produced quickly and in vast quantities, making them ideal for pandemic responses. 

As much as developing an effective vaccine is an impressive scientific accomplishment, manufacturing one in large quantities is nearly as challenging. A 2011 article published in The Lancet by Jon Smith and others from Sanofi Pasteur and the Harvard School of Public Health outlines the immense logistical tangles involved in making and distributing a vaccine. Producing a good vaccine requires intensive quality-control checks, an understanding of the vaccine’s shelf-life and temperature dependency, and efficient packaging and labeling in several languages. Smith and coworkers emphasize that rapid, pandemic-scale vaccine development requires large factories, and they advocated for a joint corporate-public facility that would be ready to go in case of emergency. Unfortunately, now nine years later, no such dedicated facility exists, prompting a scramble as companies race to modify old plants or establish new ones that will be capable of producing COVID-19 vaccines. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said that it is “doable” to have a vaccine available in January of 2021 if “the right things fall into place”. National Public Radio reports on Dr. Fauci’s comments and stresses that private-public partnerships are being established in the US that might help these needed pieces to fall into place.