$2bn race to find a vaccine
March 10, 2020 - Vaccines harness the natural activity of the body’s immune system to recognise and attack a virus or bacteria when it is infected. Vaccines are traditionally grown inside living cells such as hens’ eggs.
Now, as the world faces SARS-CoV-2 -- the new coronavirus that causes the respiratory illness Covid-19 -- the race is on to produce a vaccine. And a key player in that race is headquartered in Norway, the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) -- a partnership of governments, industry and charities, created three years ago to fight emerging diseases that threaten global health. CEPI is already sponsoring four Covid-19 vaccine projects.
Shortly after Chinese scientists published the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on January 10, the race was on. Researchers in the U.S. at Massachusetts-based Moderna, a CEPI-sponsored start-up, began developing a “nucleic acid vaccine.” The vaccine contains the genetic recipe for human recipients to generate antigens -- in this case viral fusion proteins -- inside their body. These antigens then trigger the immune system to produce antibodies to block the virus. By February 7, Moderna’s scientists had manufactured dozens of doses of clinical-grade vaccine, ready for testing.
A CEPI-sponsored team in Australia is also using the “spike protein” on the outside of the virus. A viral spike protein is like a key that “unlocks the door” to gain access to the cells of a human host. The University of Queensland scientists use “molecular clamp” technology to hold the fusion proteins in a shape that antibodies are most likely to recognise.
“There is a real sense of urgency,” says Dr Richard Hatchett, CEPI’s executive director, “because the threat we are facing is unprecedented in the last 100 years in terms of its speed and potential severity.” Hatchett estimates that developing Covid-19 vaccines at speed will cost about $2 billion over the next 12-18 months.
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