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Could The COVID-19 Spur A Revolution In Vaccine Development?

Laboratory at the Moderna Therapeutics Inc. facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.. Moderna is ... [+] © 2017 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

The daily reports out of Asia about the COVID-19 (formerly the Wuhan Coronavirus) are driving a lot of fear of spreading contagion, and our hearts go out to the people of Hubei province and across China who are suffering terribly. But there is also news of a potential revolution underway in the field of vaccine development, one that is giving us a peek at the unique potential of modern biotechnology.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which is a partnership of the governments of Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the World Economic Forum, has jumped in to fund emergency vaccine development efforts at Inovio Pharmaceuticals, the University of Queensland, Moderna Therapeutics based in Cambridge, MA, and CureVac AG of Tübingen, Germany. The latter two firms are particularly interesting to me because they are trying to harness messenger RNA (mRNA) as a new class of drugs. We brought a group of Harvard Business School MBA students to Moderna last fall for a visit, and company leaders talked about their approach to vaccines and the potential for addressing global pandemic infections, precisely the situation we are facing now.

Some background on vaccines

A vaccine is typically a mixture of chemicals that trigger the body’s immune system to defend against disease. For diseases caused by viruses, the mix has a component called an antigen. This is usually a weakened form of the virus, but it could also be a protein found on the surface of the virus.  In either case, it can no longer cause the disease. The antigen fools the body into thinking it has encountered a disease-causing agent, and it triggers the body’s immune system to generate antibodies to destroy the threat. These antibodies are what provide long-term protection against future infection. This is also the theory behind using plasma from recovered coronavirus patients to treat those who are seriously ill in China right now.

Flu vaccines are traditionally prepared by growing the viruses on chicken eggs and then inactivating them. A flu vaccine usually contains two strains of influenza A viruses (H1N1 and H3N2) and an influenza B virus. Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), or the Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australia pick target viral strains and prepare cell banks that are used as inoculums for vaccine manufacturers to use. A suspension of the virus is inoculated into fertilized chicken eggs, which are incubated under controlled temperature and humidity conditions for a number of days. The allantoic fluid (the egg whites) which contains the live virus is harvested and tested, and then it is purified. The purified virus is inactivated by splitting it into fragments with a detergent or by using formaldehyde before the final purification step. I had the opportunity to visit the Commonwealth Serum Labs (CSL) in Australia a number of years ago and watch the process. CSL’s Seqirus is one of the largest influenza vaccine companies in the world. The whole process is complex, labor-intensive, and crucially it takes time. (For more background on vaccine manufacturing, I recently prepared a case on the Gates Foundation and its efforts in vaccines).

Written by: Willy Shih (Senior Contributor) Published on: Feb 16, 2020, 07:16am

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