The race to develop coronavirus vaccines

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Defeating Covid-19 will call for-involve quarantines, social distancing, antivirals and other drugs, and healthcare for the sick. But the hope that we have a coronavirus vaccine in 12-18 months makes us optimistic.   Making vaccines usually takes a decade or more between development, safety testing and manufacturing.

To speed things up, scientists are turning to untested classes of vaccines, and rethinking every part of how they are designed, evaluated and manufactured. If the approach works, we will, for the first time, have identified a new disease and developed a vaccine against it while the initial outbreak is still ongoing according to newscientist.com.

New data obtained exclusively by the Sunday Telegraph reveals that there are now 224 vaccines in development around the world - almost double the total of just a month ago.  The data, collated by Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), reveals that while North America has the largest number of vaccine projects underway - accounting for 49 per cent of the world’s total - China is furthest along the development track. At least six groups have already begun injecting formulations into volunteers in safety trials; others have started testing in animals- according to Nature.   That vaccine is being pioneered by the Chinese biotech firm CanSino Biologics and the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology. It utilises a “non replicating viral-vector” design similar to the one being developed by Oxford University in England.

Scientists are exploring not just one approach to creating the vaccine, but at least eight- According to Nature. Protein based approach is mostly used by the research groups to develop the COVID-19 vaccine. More than 25 companies/research groups working on this.  In protein based approach virus spike protein are used to generate immune response to produce the antibodies against the virus.  In the 1980s, researchers learned to mass-produce sub-units of a virus, each fragment assembled out of proteins and sugars. This might be a toxin or a part of the viral shell – just a signature whiff of the pathogen that can trigger immune reactions when introduced into the body. These molecular fragments are called antigens, because they generate antibodies that target them.

Other leading candidates include those being developed by Sinovac Biotech in China, Pfizer and BioNTech in Germany, Moderna Pharmaceuticals in the US and Oxford University and AstraZeneca in the UK.

Scientists are increasingly optimistic that a vaccine can be produced in record time. But getting it manufactured and distributed to a large population countries like India, China etc.  will pose huge challenges.

Source: newscientist.com, Nature (580, 576-577 (2020) doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01221-y), Telegraph, theguardian

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