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article imageNew platform technologies speed development of COVID-19 vaccine

By Karen Graham     Mar 3, 2020 in Science
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. However, this is 2020, and we have "vaccine platforms," a way to develop vaccines safely.
Just to recoup the latest on the coronavirus worldwide - COVID-19 has infected about 96,000 people globally and resulted in over 3,100 deaths, most of them in China. Additionally, there is a lot of talk about the development of a vaccine for the coronavirus.
This has led to speculation into how long it would take to create an effective vaccine. The coronaviruses are a family of pathogens that cause respiratory illnesses. They transmit rapidly and frequently evolve into new variants not previously identified in humans.
Only three coronaviruses are dangerous and include the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, better known as SARS-CoV, that killed 774 people in 2003, and the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, MERS-CoV, which has a mortality rate of 35 percent. The new coronavirus the world is dealing with today is known as 2019-nCoV 0r COVID-19.
Fake  sub-par or expired vaccines are a big issue in China
Fake, sub-par or expired vaccines are a big issue in China
Vaccine development
Traditionally, vaccine development can take years, literally. Scientists have to tinker with the pathogen - trying to weaken or disassemble it to render it capable of creating an effective immune response with acceptable levels of side effects. Not only this but developing a vaccine is expensive.
A single vaccine could cost over a billion dollars to develop, which is why only one that is routinely administered to large segments of a population is ever going to be financially viable. And there is a greater risk to a pharmaceutical company that is developing a vaccine critical for epidemic and pandemic preparedness.
One other important consideration is taken into account when developing a vaccine. Vaccines are given to healthy people to prevent them from getting a particular infection. This means the vaccine will have to go through quite a number of stringent approval processes. This alone requires there be a very high margin of safety involved.
An FDA laboratory worker injects an influenza virus into an egg  where it will grow before being har...
An FDA laboratory worker injects an influenza virus into an egg, where it will grow before being harvested—one of the many complex steps involved in creating a traditional flu vaccine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
So, what if a looming pandemic is on the horizon? Could there be a way to use alternative technologies to create a viable vaccine in a far shorter length of time than by using traditional protocols? Yes, yes there is.
The development of platform technologies
Pharmaceutical companies have been working on developing platform technologies for vaccines that could significantly accelerate the developmental cycle. Basically, a platform vaccine is a system that uses certain basic components as the backbone but which can be adapted relatively quickly, simply by inserting new genetic or protein sequences—so that it can be used against different pathogens.
For those readers familiar with platform technologies used in the building of electric vehicles, this is about the same idea. A manufacturer uses a "basic platform" and can still create different models of a vehicle.
Because of this flexibility 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.
How good is this? An RNA vaccine was developed by Cambridge-based biotech company Moderna – which took just 42 days to produce an experimental vaccine candidate. Clinical testing is expected to begin on 45 healthy volunteers. Moderna's vaccine, mRNA-1273, has been shipped to researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. A clinical trial is scheduled to start this month, which will produce early initial results by August.
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.
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 the more rapid deployment of platform-based vaccines.
More about coronavirus, Vaccine, platform technologies, flexibility, "backbone"
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