Why the next vaccine hunt will take even less time | India News – Times of India

The flu pandemic started in 1918 but a vaccine for civilians became available only in 1945. It wasn’t the only vaccine that took years to make, though. US scientists grappled with the polio virus as early as 1935, but the first vaccine wasn’t licensed until 20 years later. Making vaccines was always slow work before Covid-19. But this time, vaccines are ready in less than a year. This is good news for the future of vaccine development. Here’s what has made it possible.
Plug-and-play
All the old vaccines, whether for polio or the ?u, were made from scratch, and that is a slow road. You ?rst identify the virus responsible for the disease, then ?nd a way to insert dead or weakened viruses into people to train them to ?ght it. You also need to ?nd ways to grow whole vats of the virus safely (a scary scenario when you are dealing with, say, smallpox). Yet, things go wrong even with a weakened virus. For example, about 1 in 2.5 million children gets polio from the virus in the vaccine. Now imagine a ‘modular’ vaccine. You create a harmless virus in the lab that can be used as a ‘postman’ to deliver pieces of disease-causing viruses to the body. It’s like the motor in a food processor. You keep changing the jars for juicing, grinding and kneading, but the motor remains the same. And because the ‘postman’ delivers only a part of the harmful virus to the body, it does not make you sick. This modular vaccine concept has been around for a few years. The ‘Oxford vaccine’ made by AstraZeneca and Serum Institute of India is one such. At its core is the ChAdOx1 or ‘Chimpanzee Adenovirus Oxford One’ lab-made virus that has been used to make ?u, Zika, chikungunya, Mers and prostate cancer vaccines in recent years, a BBC article says. When the novel coronavirus surfaced in Wuhan, Oxford scientists were ready for it. China published the virus’s full genetic code on January 10, and the Oxford vaccine was ready in just over three months. Human trials for its candidate started on April 23.
Less red tape
In fact, making the vaccine with the coronavirus’s ‘spike protein’ encased in ChAdOx1 took less time than that. Part of the three months was spent on getting approvals and funds, and organising manufacturing of the vaccine. Cut those out and the actual vaccine development takes much less time. A scientist quoted in the BBC report says the idea that traditional vaccine development was a 10-year process is a fallacy. Even with whole viruses, making a vaccine took a fraction of the time. The years were spent writing lots of applications and facing lots of rejections. Speedy delivery of Covid vaccines is largely thanks to bureaucrats keeping out of the way.
Gene tech
While the Oxford vaccine needs a part of the disease-causing virus, the two top vaccines right now — from P?zer and Moderna — dispense with the actual virus completely. They use ‘synthetic messenger RNA’, an advanced technology that’s never been used. Messenger RNA or ‘mRNA’ is a naturally occurring chemical that the body uses to tell cells what proteins they should make. Using synthetic mRNA, scientists can order cells to make the coronavirus’s protein, which induces antibody production against it without exposing the body to the virus. After China published the coronavirus’s genetic code on January 10, scientists at Moderna and P?zer’s German partner BioNTech began designing the genetic message that would tell cells to make antibodies for the virus. They did not need to wait for actual virus samples. Moderna shipped its ?rst box of vaccine vials to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on February 24 — taking just 42 days to make its vaccine.
Hurry, Worry
While faster vaccine development is good, swift approvals for public use pose a dilemma for scientists, says an article in Nature. For one, ?rms can seek approval for vaccines two months after half the trial participants got their last dose. P?zer is ahead of Moderna for this reason. But a two-month observation of a few thousand people might not reveal all the side-effects. Swift approvals are also a hurdle for further testing. Once a vaccine is approved, people in its placebo group would also want to be vaccinated, making it dif?cult to measure the ef?cacy of vaccination. Also, when several approved vaccines are around, who would want to participate in the trials of new and potentially better vaccines?

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