Researchers adapting SARS vaccine for coronavirus get head start

A researcher works in a lab at the Duke-NUS Medical School, which is developing a way to track genetic changes that speed testing of vaccines against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Singapore. (File photo: Reuters)

Researchers may be able to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that could enter clinical trials in six-eight weeks if they secure funding, according to scientists who say they had a “head start” because they had already been working on a vaccine for the SARS virus.

The development of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is crucial to protecting humanity since the virus has become endemic, meaning it will not go away naturally. There are currently 70 COVID-19 vaccines in various stages of development, according to the World Health Organization, but only three are in clinical trials being tested on humans to evaluate safety and efficacy.

Developing vaccines for other diseases have taken more than a decade, and a COVID-19 vaccine is unlikely to be available until the end of 2021 at the earliest.

However, while some researchers are starting from scratch, others have taken the approach of adapting vaccines for other diseases that were already in development – two teams suggest their work on a vaccine for SARS, a coronavirus related to COVID-19, gave them a head start in the race to end the pandemic.

Adapting from SARS

Dr. Maria Bottazzi, a researcher based in Texas, told Al Arabiya English that her team has a head start because it is adapting a vaccine they were in the process of developing for SARS.

Because of the similarity in the diseases – both being coronaviruses – they believed that the SARS vaccine might be effective in fighting COVID-19. In a previous interview with Al Arabiya English, her colleague Peter Hotez explained the vaccine would be widely accessible in low-income populations.

“So this gives us a really big head start. When we had this new virus we basically attempted to approach it with the same strategy and roadmap that we have been doing for SARS and MERS since 2011,” said Bottazzi, who is the co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital’s Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine.

Her team worked on vaccines for SARS and MERS from 2011-2016, but stopped work because funding dried up.

The two viruses have similar genetic codes, and Bottazzi said that new research shows that the blood of patients infected with SARS can neutralize the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Read more: False positives undermine coronavirus antibody tests: Experts

“We know more and more that using something that was developed for SARS has a strong potential to prevent COVID-19,” she said.

Bottazzi said her team is working on selecting vaccine candidates, which are the part of a virus that scientists select to mimic what a real infection would look like in a human body, and they understand how to evaluate some of the vaccine characteristics in a lab or in animals.

Funding needed

One of the next steps would be moving to human clinical trials, but the team needs $5 million in funding, and only $2 million has been secured so far.

“We cannot start a clinical trial unless you can show that you can afford it from beginning to end. It is unethical to start without knowing you have the funds needed,” Bottazzi said. “In addition, and most importantly, you also need the FDA clearance. So upon funding and FDA clearance, we can definitely launch [clinical trials] less than 2 months.”

Other researchers have lamented the lack of funds as well.

“A lot of virologists have been talking about how hard it is to get funding for coronavirus research, like SARS, and seasonal coronavirus,” Emma Hodcroft, a co-developer of Nextstrain previously told Al Arabiya English.

Coronaviruses aren’t very interesting to study because they’re typically not very deadly, but had there been funding to study immunity patterns of other coronaviruses, like the common cold, “we might have a handle on how immunity might work for this one,” she added.

The lack of funding has meant that no vaccine has been completed for any of the coronaviruses.

“There have been efforts, but there’s not enough funding to get you to the finish line. The funding flow isn’t continuous,” she said.

Fixing the Trojan horse

Bottazzi’s Texas-based team is not the only team working to develop a SARS vaccine into a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Nikolai Petrovsky, a Flinders University researcher in Australia said his team was close to developing a viable vaccine for SARS until funding from US Congress stopped around 2010.

Petrovsky told Al Arabiya English that the vaccine he and his team are now developing for COVID-19 could be ready for clinical trials in eight weeks.

He said he recently received half a million dollars in funding that will help pay for some animal studies, but that $50 million would be necessary to fully fund all necessary trials, including those on ferrets and humans.

Petrovsky explained how what his team had previously learned about how coronaviruses respond to antibodies have helped them this time around.

While the flu mutates every year to work around the immunity a person has developed, “coronaviruses can’t be bothered mutating, because it’s a lot of effort,” he said.

Read more: Governments track coronavirus infections, but what about tracking immunity?

The body develops antibodies when a person recovers from an infection that typically create an immunity. But coronaviruses use those antibodies to get inside the immune cells and then kill those cells, Petrovsky explained.

“It’s like a Trojan horse,” he said.

Using this knowledge, Petrovsky and his team worked from 2004-2008 to improve a vaccine that made people ill when they were given the vaccine. Just as they had figured out how to make a vaccine that fixed this unintended effect, funding was stalled.

But Petrovsky and Bottazzi say their previous research and lessons learned has put them in a good position to develop an effective vaccine this time around.

However, given that there is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, researchers must be prepared to continue to adapt in the future as more information about the virus emerges.

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