The coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it is most widely known, is, by any measure, a formidable adversary. It is relentless, strong and travels and strikes by stealth. At present, our arsenal to fight it is virtually empty. Aside from a few modestly effective drugs that lessen its effects, our most potent weapons against the virus are social distancing and washing our hands.
But behind the scenes, scientists around the world are working feverishly to find a magic bullet – a COVID-19 vaccine that might one day help us put an end to a pandemic that has disrupted all our lives.
Author and television presenter Dr Michael Mosley, revered around the globe as one of the world’s best science and health communicators, has a special insight into the race for a vaccine, having gained access to two of the leading teams in a scientific quest that may well determine the future of the human race.
In his latest book, COVID-19: What you need to know about the coronavirus and the race for a vaccine, Dr Michael Mosley reveals that of the more than 100 vaccines currently being developed around the world, there are two that have the best chances of successful, and both are based in Great Britain.
“It’s some point of pride I have to say that one of those teams is from my own alma mater Oxford University, where I studied medicine,” says Dr Mosley.
“The Oxford team, I believe, are probably the closest to securing a vaccine but there is still so much that we don’t know about this virus that it is hard to make any predictions about how this will play out. But I think there is good reason to hope that science will find an answer.
“You have to remember that vaccine research is usually counted in years, sometimes even decades, and this virus only reared its head to the world in January. That’s not a lot of time for science to catch up, however, we are, in some respects, lucky because there was one team of researchers that were already partway down the road to a human vaccine for coronavirus when this pandemic began.”
Dr Mosley says that single fact gives him strong hope that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be found, if not by the end of the year then quite possibly sometime during 2021.
A vaccine is a biological substance that helps stimulate the human immune system into producing antibodies that protect against disease. Usually, it uses a weakened or dead piece of genetic material as an agent to produce this immune response which then targets the agent and destroys it, now and in the future.
While there are several drugs on the horizon that might help us relieve some of the symptoms of COVID-19, these are mainly drugs that we already use. The recently touted steroid dexamethasone was shown in recent British trials to reduce the death rates of COVID-19 by as much as a third among severely ill patients who were hospitalised and by one-fifth among patients receiving other forms of supplemental oxygen. However, this study is yet to be published in a peer-review journal
As promising as this may be, the real hope is in the race to find an effective vaccine. “From a treatment point of view that’s not all that encouraging at the moment,” says Dr Mosley. “I think that perhaps the next six months will reveal other drugs that we haven’t yet considered. But the real hope in this pandemic is that scientists will come up with a workable vaccine. There are more than 100 vaccines currently being tested. Of course, there are no guarantees in the world of medical research.
“Having said that, however, I believe that there are some researchers out there who are closer than others to finding a solution.”
There are two groups, he says, that he has followed very closely. One is from the Imperial College in London and the other from Oxford University. Both say it is possible to produce a vaccine by the end of the year, which would be a magnificent scientific achievement considering that most vaccines are developed over many years, not months.
Indeed, so confident are they, that one team has already linked up with manufacturers around the world to start production as soon as their vaccine is given the all-clear.
The two approaches use quite different models. The Imperial approach is based on the protein spikes that rise above the main cell wall of the COVID-19 virus. These spikes – the scary-looking spikes on balls that we have all seen whenever TV news mentions the virus – latch on to human cells and provide the vehicle for the virus to get inside.
The Imperial team, headed by Professor Robin Shattock, believe that the presence of the spikes alone will be enough to trigger our body’s immune system to respond to the virus. In other words, they have developed a vaccine that puts genetic material into the human body which tells the body to start reproducing copies of the spikes.
The immune system then reacts and floods the body with antibodies to fight what it believes is a foreign threat. The spikes, however, are only a precursor to the virus itself.
By raising the levels of antibodies tuned into the genetic code of the virus, the body is then much better prepared to fight COVID-19, if an infection happens.
The Oxford approach also uses these same spikes but in a different way, says Dr Mosley. They have taken a weakened version of the common cold and genetically modified it so that it cannot grow in humans but so that it also produces the COVID-19 spikes thus also triggering the immune system to respond.
“These Oxford scientists were already well on the way to developing this vaccine because it began as a vaccine for the MERS virus (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) or camel flu,” says Dr Mosley. “Like COVID-19, MERS is also a coronavirus. The Oxford team was conducting a human trial for this vaccine in Saudi Arabia in December last year before the pandemic began so they were well placed to respond.”
What the team did was take the vaccine back to the lab where it was genetically modified again in response to the genetic sequence of the COVID-19 virus that was published online by Chinese scientists in January this year.
This vaccine has already been tested, first on Macaque monkeys in the United States who were vaccinated and then infected with the virus – none became ill – and then on 1000 human volunteers. It is now in another round of human testing being conducted in Brazil, where community transmission is now rampant.
If it proves to be effective there, then there is a good chance it may well be ready before the end of the year. However, there is still a lot that can go wrong.
“If we can not find a vaccine for this virus, then I am afraid that the future looks quite grim,” says Dr Mosley. “It’s a world that will be substantially different for every single one of us, not just in terms of our health but also, as we have already seen, in terms of our economic stability and perhaps even our political stability.
“But I prefer to put my faith in science. We have already made great leaps in what can be achieved. I think that there is enough evidence that indicates that one of these vaccines will get past the post. At least, that’s what I am hoping. We haven’t contained it, and at this point, it doesn’t look like it will just go away, which leaves us with two options: living with the virus forever or finding a vaccine. ”
You can buy Dr Michael Mosley’s book ‘COVID-19: What you need to know about the coronavirus and the race for a vaccine’ here.