Racing to save the world from the coronavirus pandemic
By Joe Shute*
In a laboratory in the depths of Imperial College London, all eyes are on a group of mice scurrying about their daily business. The rodents were injected a few weeks ago with a prototype vaccine which it is hoped will achieve what the world has so far singularly failed to do – stop the coronavirus Covid-19.
Progress, says Professor Robin Shattock of Imperial’s department of infectious disease, looks good. His team first started developing the vaccine in mid-January and are working at record pace, taking just 14 days to get from the genetic sequencing of the virus to generating the trial vaccine in the laboratory. It relies upon a cutting-edge technique which injects new genetic code into the muscle, instructing it to make a protein found on the surface of coronavirus triggering a protective immune response. Should the mice trial prove a success then Prof Shattock hopes to be experimenting on humans in the summer and have a vaccine ready next year – perhaps even the first in the world.
The laboratories at Imperial are part of the global fightback against Covid-19. At Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, researchers are producing a vaccine ‘seed stock’, 1,000 doses of which will be manufactured in Italy for use in clinical trials. At present around 35 pharmaceutical companies are similarly working to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.
“It is competitive in that people always like to be first but it’s a friendly competition,” Prof Shattock explains. “More a race against the virus than each other.”
The problem is the virus is winning, coursing across the globe with a speed and severity that has shocked seasoned virologists. At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Dr Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organisation emergencies programme, warned of a “major funding gap” for potential vaccines. Even if one does appear early next year, that would be scant defence against the months of unprecedented global devastation we are warned could lie ahead. The WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan said that there is a major funding gap for potential vaccines against the virus.
Another concern is Covid-19 has already evolved into two major lineages – dubbed ‘L’ and ‘S’ types. The older ‘S-type’ appears to be milder and less infectious, while the ‘L-type’ which emerged later, spreads quickly and currently accounts for around 70 per cent of cases. Health experts fear the virus could hit Britain in “multiple waves” meaning new vaccines might not work against mutated strains.
Accordingly this is a war now being waged on multiple fronts. Alongside vaccine development, researchers are focusing on antivirals to treat patients (of which currently there are none) either by hoping to create new antivirals in record time or dust off old drugs developed for previous outbreaks. At the same time scientists are working to develop better rapid diagnostics in order to more efficiently test large-scale populations for the virus – something that has been hailed in South Korea for preventing its further spread.
In China alone, about 300 clinical trials are attempting to treat patients with standard antiviral therapies, while in the west attempts are being made to repurpose old treatments for Ebola, malaria and HIV to see if they can impact against Covid-19.
Many see a drug called remdesivir, originally developed to treat Ebola and production of which is currently being ramped up by the US pharmaceutical firm Gilead, as a frontrunner and one of the very few antivirals that has a reasonable prospect of helping patients in the near-term.
Should these old drugs fail then the scientific community will be required to think more creatively and it is here where a 39-year-old US tech genius called Jacob Glanville steps in. Born in Guatemala to “US hippy ex-pat parents”, Glanville is already something of an outlier in a field that is dominated by the pharmaceutical giants. But he is currently being backed by the US government to embark on “super-accelerated engineering” of antibodies produced during the SARS outbreak of 2002 to see if they might apply to the latest member of the same family of coronavirus.
It is a process that Glanville, chief executive of Distributed Bio, describes as “taking five billion pieces of spaghetti and throwing them all against a wall to see what sticks.”
Glanville appears in a recent Netflix series, ‘Pandemic’, which focused on a separate branch of his pioneering work to develop universal influenza vaccines. He is described as the David to the influenza’s Goliath and with Covid-19 he faces a similarly outsized challenge. Should his attempt to discover an antibody which reacts against Covid-19 prove a success then he says it is conceivable that a drug could be ready by September.
Even that would be too late for many. By next month, he is predicting 40,000 cases of Covid-19 in his home state of California overwhelming intensive care wards.
“There is an enemy here and that is the virus,” he says. “We all want to protect our families.”
Scientists across the world are indebted to their Chinese counterparts who on January 10 openly published the genetic sequencing of Covid-19. Organisations such as Cepi, set up in response to the lack of scientific progress during the Ebola crisis, are funding the rapid research of vaccines while governments are also pouring money into development.
At the University of Toronto, Sachdev Sidhu, a professor of molecular genetics, is leading a team part-funded by the Canadian federal government to develop successful antivirals. His work involves a pioneering technique he has developed to test millions of molecules stored in a library to assess whether one contains the crucial protease inhibitor for Covid-19 (which would help neutralise the virus).
He describes the rapid global progress that has been made so far as “a triumph of science” with the work that took a decade to understand the HIV virus being done in a month.
While he works on exploiting its Achilles heel, he says it is best to block out the human impact of Covid-19. “You can’t get emotional. That doesn’t help. Our job is to figure out what it is, how it works, and shut it down.”
Dunfermline-born researcher Kate Broderick is senior vice president of research and development at the US firm Inovio and admits she has averaged about two hours sleep each night since the virus first emerged.
“As a scientist and also a mum I’m extremely worried,” says the 42-year-old. “In my wildest nightmares I couldn’t have predicted two months ago, one month ago, or even a week ago, that we would be in the situation we’re in today.”
The day the Chinese authorities released the full genetic sequence of Covid-19, her company (which had previously worked on vaccines for the likes of Ebola, Sika, MERS and Lassa fever) designed a vaccine in just three hours and immediately started manufacturing small batches to test in the laboratory.
Inovio plans to begin testing the vaccine on humans in the US next month with parallel trials running in China and South Korea and will then move into phase two (of three) clinical trials experimenting on a wider group of people. She declines to put a timeline on when a vaccine might be ready but admits it will require at the very least tens of millions dollars in funding. Her team has been given a $9 million grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an initiative backed by Bill Gates, but far more investment is needed to make any vaccine widely available.
The crippling costs involved are where previous vaccines have faltered but with Covid-19 already proving to be like no virus the world has ever seen, precedent currently is being left by the wayside.
“This virus is absolutely remarkable to me,” she says, commenting on the speed and scale of the contagion. “And I do think people should be taking this extremely seriously.”
Back on the streets of London, thousands of volunteers are currently being assessed for their suitability for clinical trials of vaccine or antivirals for Covid-19. Hvivo (a subsidiary of the company Open Orphan) which has developed a rapid testing model has in recent days received 10,000 applications of those wishing to be injected with a close relative of Covid-19 to help discover an effective treatment.
Andrew Catchpole, a virologist and chief scientist at the firm, admits the offer of £3500 per person to spend two weeks in quarantine will be the prime motivation for some. But he detects in the surge in interest a wider appetite to pull together and be a force for societal good.
“This is a real human emergency,” he says. “And a lot of people genuinely want to do their bit.”
*Exclusive The Telegraph / The Interview People / Macau Business