Pandemic Panacea: vaccine and therapy innovation

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | November 16, 2020

Art by Ava Hennen (’22)

The global death toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic peaked at 1,319,267 cases on November 15 and is skyrocketing as the U.S. continues to smash records with an alarming increase in cases. Despite political pressure, U.S. health experts have consistently maintained that fully reopening businesses or schools without masks and social distancing is inadvisable without a thoroughly tested and approved vaccine. As the U.S. enters its ninth month of quarantine, pharmaceutical companies face increasing pressure to meet vaccine deadlines while not compromising efficacy by rushing trials. While some companies are focusing their efforts on developing a vaccine to protect against the coronavirus, others are modifying antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19 patients. One of these adapted antiviral treatments has already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for official use: Remdesivir, now known as Veklury, which has previously seen success in Ebola patients.

One approach to COVID-19 vaccination makes use of antibodies: a person who contracts COVID-19 has newly formed antibodies that provide either partial or full immunity post-infection whether they experienced symptoms or not. Serology tests are blood-based tests that identify the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in a subject; however, they do not detect viral material and thus cannot be used for diagnosis. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and leading public health expert, has referred to antibodies as “the gold standard of protection against a viral infection.”  On November 9, the FDA approved Eli Lilly and Company’s monoclonal antibody treatment, which uses engineered proteins that mimic the behavior of real antibodies, for emergency use in hospitalized patients. Approximately 50 programs are developing these treatment drugs.

Another therapy involves the transfer of convalescent plasma—the substance in the body which carries antibodies—to patients who lack antibodies to prompt an antibody response; the FDA has approved this treatment for emergency use in hospitalized patients. While these treatments may be useful in improving responses in those already sick with the virus, vaccines are necessary for widespread immunity, which would greatly facilitate the reopening of the economy and society as a whole.

More than 150 projects are currently focused on COVID-19 vaccine development globally. Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a Trump administration effort to distribute a vaccine through public and private partnerships with government agencies and companies, has pledged $10 billion to the cause of developing and delivering 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine by January 2021. OWS is currently funding four vaccines currently in Phase 3 trials from the following groups: Moderna, University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, Pfizer and BioNTech, and Johnson and Johnson. 

On November 9, Pfizer released a report stating that early analysis of its vaccine indicated that it was more than 90 percent effective in preventing the disease in trial volunteers with no previous coronavirus infection. This percentage, if consistent, would make the vaccine as effective as childhood vaccines, such as one for the measles. Moderna is currently using mRNA technology to reengineer the biology of cells to fight diseases and is in Phase 3 clinical trials in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Unlike their competitors’, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is a single dose, rather than multi-dose, and the company has resumed trials after an unexplained patient illness in late October. According to CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, it would take up to nine months to vaccinate the entire American public. Also, Dr. Fauci shared his timeline for the development of a widespread vaccine, predicting that “by the time [we] get to maybe the third or fourth month of 2021, then [we]’ll have doses for everyone.”

As the U.S. death toll hits a sobering 246,000, scientists are racing to develop effective therapies and vaccines in the face of public pressure to reopen the economy. A popular argument among proponents for reopening is that the country has shut down for months with no end in sight. However, scientists and public health officials stress that the past eight months have not been effective in containing the virus because the public has not consistently followed containment measures. Until the country’s staggering daily cases fall and scientists deem reopening safe, the public must continue to wear masks, follow social distancing practices, and avoid public spaces, including large gatherings—an inevitable reality due to the approaching winter season. Currently, Bay Area residents can be tested for COVID-19 at pharmacies, hospitals, urgent care centers, and clinics around the bay. Serology tests are also available from health care providers or at testing centers. Until next time, happy social distancing and masking!

Categories: Column, Science

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