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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Coronavirus vaccine: How long till the hunt is over?

The Coronavirus vaccine hunt is heating up on a global platform with hundreds of researchers, scientists joining the fight to develop vaccines. But realistically the hunt is far from over. The end of the pandemic might not arrive sooner than anticipated.

Have the Italians found a vaccine?

Most recently, Italian scientists and researchers have claimed to have successfully developed a vaccine that could work on humans to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. Luigi Aurisicchio, the CEO of Takis, the firm which is being credited for developing the medication, claimed that a COVID-19 candidate vaccine has neutralised the virus in human cells for the very first time, several news reports said. “This is the most advanced stage of testing of a candidate vaccine created in Italy. Human tests are expected after this summer,” Aurisicchio was quoted as saying to Italian news agency ANSA. “According to the Spallanzani Hospital, as far as we know we are the first in the world so far to have demonstrated neutralisation of the coronavirus by a vaccine. We expect this to happen in humans too,” he added. The Italian researchers have said that the vaccine experimented on mice and it is said to have worked as the animals developed antibodies that blocked the Coronavirus from infecting their cells. The spike protein in the virus is embedded in an envelope of fat — a lipid layer. The researchers developed the vaccine candidates based on the genetic material of this spike protein. The Italians have claimed that this way their vaccine is the most effective as it can help develop antibodies against the protein. “We are working hard for a vaccine coming from Italian research, with an all-Italian and innovative technology, tested in Italy and made available to everyone,” Aurisicchio was quoted as saying by reports. “In order to reach this goal, we need the support of national and international institutions and partners who may help us speed up the process,” he added. Italy was one of the worst affected by the Coronavirus pandemic with a death toll of over 30,000 until now.

However, it is not just Italy that has claimed of achieving such a feat, but other countries like Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom have also claimed of developing vaccines and crucial drugs that can help treat the Coronavirus.

Hunt for COVID-19 vaccine
A microscopic virus close up of COVID-19 (Photo: shutterstock.com/creativeneko)

The Coronavirus vaccine hunt in the UK, Israel and elsewhere

Scientists at Jenner Institute of Oxford University recently said that they have made a potential vaccine for COVID-19. The United Kingdom has pledged 388 million euros until now to fund the COVID-19 vaccine research, tests and treatments. At least 31 active case studies for vaccine development are currently going on in the country. In the UK, the first human trial of the vaccine being developed the Oxford University was performed on a microbiologist named Elisa Granato. She was the first-ever volunteer among the initial group of 800 candidates who were a part of this trial. “I’m a scientist, so I wanted to try to support the scientific process wherever I can,” Granato told the BBC as she was given a dose of the vaccine in Oxford. “Since I don’t study viruses I felt a bit useless these days, so I felt like this is a very easy way for me to support the cause,” she said. The researchers call the vaccine ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, which is made from a virus also named ChAdOx1 — a weakened version of a common cold virus that typically causes infections in chimpanzees and cannot grow in human beings. Researchers in the UK had begun trials in March and the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine meant for the Coronavirus has been given to over 300 people till date. They have claimed it to be safe until now apart from a few temporary side effects like a sore arm or a headache. The UK already has made plans to mass-produce this vaccine, if it proves to be effective, by September.
Israel also claimed to have made a remarkable breakthrough in coming up with a vaccine for the pandemic. Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett was shown the “antibody that attacks the virus in a monoclonal way and can neutralize it within the bodies of those ill”, a statement from his office said recently. The official statement had also said that the antibody’s development had been completed and that the institute which developed it was in the process of patenting the find “and in the next stage, researchers will approach international companies to produce the antibody on a commercial scale”.

But how long is the vaccine approval process?

When someone develops a new vaccine, typically the stages are defined as below:

  • The exploratory stage
  • Pre-clinical stage
  • Clinical development
  • Regulatory review and approval
  • Manufacturing
  • Quality control

The Clinical development stage alone is a three-phase process. During the first phase, small groups of people receive the trial vaccine. Then in the second phase, the clinical study is expanded and the vaccine is given to those who have characteristics (such as age and physical health) similar to the people for whom the new vaccine is being developed. In the third phase, the vaccine is given to as many as thousands of people to test for its safety and efficiency. Many vaccines also undergo a fourth phase where ongoing studies are devised after the vaccine is approved and licensed.
The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Center for Biologics Evaluation and ResearchExternal (CBER) is responsible for regulating vaccines in the United States. The FDA can ask vaccine manufacturers to submit their test results meant to find out the safety, potency and purity of the vaccine. They can also ask them to submit samples that the FDA might test themselves.
A vaccine also needs to be tracked for its side effects, if any, after it is administered. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a national vaccine safety surveillance program co-sponsored by the FDA and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). VAERS is responsible for collecting and analyzing information from reports of side effects that might have occurred after the administration of US-licensed vaccines. The reports that they examine can be procured from vaccine manufacturers, healthcare workers, patients, pharmacists, etc.

Where is India’s place in the hunt for COVID-19 vaccine?

In an exclusive interview with Times Now Digital, Dr Inder Maurya, Consultant -Emergency Medicine – CEO and Founder, Foreign OPD, discussed in detail India’s role in developing a Coronavirus vaccine. “India has been at the forefront of fighting the COVID war. But you do realise that you need more government funding towards healthcare research – we contributed less than one per cent of GDP to the healthcare segment. After the Narendra Modi’s government came to power,  we started concentrating more on healthcare research. Newer guidelines were framed, the number of PhD students increased, more funds are allocated to research, etc. International collaborations are being done at top Israeli and American institutes. A top Indian pharmaceutical company has recently sought ICMR’s nod for the clinical trial of pegylated interferons alfa 2b against coronavirus disease. The antiviral drug is used in Hepatitis B and C Rx.”

His statement can be agreed upon to a certain extent as we have seen several research institutes, universities, colleges coming up with a number of solutions for helping treat the Coronavirus. One such example is a team of researchers from Shiv Nadar University in Noida who have discovered molecules which can be developed into a drug or used in a vaccine to prevent diseases like SARS and COVID-19. Dr Subhabrata Sen from Shiv Nadar University’s Department of Chemistry in collaboration with molecular biologist Dr Ralf Jockers, from Institute Cochin (INSERM, CNRS, Université de Paris, France), have conducted this research. However, this is not a fast process, they have clarified. The researchers estimated that it will at least take another year to start the tests on animal subjects and a lot more time before a drug/vaccine can be developed. With numerous researchers working on various ways to find a cure for the Coronavirus, the Shiv Nadar researchers feel they should consolidate forces.

IIT Gawahati - Coronavirus vaccine Research
IIT Gawahati – Coronavirus vaccine Research Photo: Shutterstock.com/K_Rajneessh

Similarly, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati (IIT Guwahati) has collaborated with Hester Biosciences Limited, a pharmaceutical company based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, to work on vaccine development against COVID-19. The agreement between the two parties was signed on April 15, 2020. The vaccine will be based on a recombinant avian paramyxovirus based vector platform. The recombinant avian paramyxovirus-1 will be used to express the immunogenic protein of SARS-CoV-2. The recombinant avian paramyxovirus-1 expressing the SARS-CoV-2 protein could be used as a vaccine candidate for further study.

The avian paramyxovirus-1 has been explored as a vaccine vector for various animals and human pathogens, which has also been used to express the immunogenic protein of human pathogens such as HIV, avian influenza virus, human parainfluenza virus, SARS-CoV. Similarly, it has also been explored as a vaccine vector for animal pathogens such as infectious bursal disease virus, infectious laryngotracheitis virus, bovine herpes virus, Nipah virus etc. IIT Guwahati and Hester Biosciences Limited expect the vaccine to be ready by the end of this year to begin animal trials. The work is currently in its earliest stages of development.

While all of this gives us a faint ray of hope that humankind could be close to developing a cure or a vaccine for the Coronavirus, we cannot yet be definite about the timeline. The question that will keep our minds occupied for now until a terrific breakthrough happens — how long till the hunt is over?

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