Developing Covid vaccine is like flying a plane while trying to build it: University of Georgia’s Ted Ross

Ted M Ross, director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology at the University of Georgia, US, heads two Covid-19 vaccine development projects. His life, he says, is now “one long Zoom call”, as he is in constant communication with his peers around the world on the advances in their research. Ross is working on a universal respiratory vaccine that offers protection against the flu and illnesses caused by different strains of coronavirus.

In a Zoom interview with G Seetharaman, Ross discusses the challenges in developing a Covid-19 vaccine and the potential risks in racing against the clock at a time when some vaccine projects have already started clinical trials, and one of them, at the University of Oxford, is hopeful of having a vaccine as early as September. Edited excerpts:

What are the biggest challenges in developing a Covid-19 vaccine?

Usually, before people start developing a vaccine, they spend many years studying the pathogen. They have animal models to assess the protective effectiveness of a vaccine. They understand which parts of the virus need to be targeted to make an effective vaccine. We are currently lacking all of that information to make a vaccine. We are making some assumptions, based on SARS-1, that the outer spike protein, which is the receptor-binding protein of this virus, is what we should be targeting.

But we have been fooled by other viruses; it doesn’t always turn out to be the most effective strategy. HIV is an example where we all targeted the receptorbinding protein and it has not turned out to be a very good target. So we don’t have enough basic information about the virus to make the best assumptions to make a vaccine or a

drug. We are basing it upon SARS-1 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and hoping it has similarities. But honestly we are trying to fly and at the same trying to build the plane.

Do you see the different vaccine projects as being part of a race or is it more of a coordinated effort?

I think it’s a combination. Often, there is competition in science and medicine about bringing effective treatments or drugs to the market. Most companies don’t like

to share their proprietary information with others.

But in an emergency situation like this, it’s been quite refreshing that scientists seem to be putting out information in the public domain with not as much concern about economic issues at the moment. I’m not saying everyone is putting 100% of their knowledge out there — there are certain things companies want to keep proprietary — but there is definitely a very large openness to share right now without really worrying about where the credit is going.

What do you think is a realistic timeline for the development of a vaccine?

A vaccine takes 5-10 years to bring to market. Under the accelerated emergency-use authorisation, companies have been allowed to move faster, so a 12-18-month framework is considered to be the earliest possible timeline that a vaccine could be readied for the market. That’s if everything goes correctly.

What we are really saying is that if it is an absolute perfect system and the very first time the vaccine is tested it’s 100% protective, then we could have it in 18 months. If you want a more realistic timeline, you are looking at 3-5 years before that vaccine is ready to be injected in someone’s arm. We have to be realistic about what we mean by the first vaccine versus the one that’s really readied to be marketed.

We have had vaccines that have been worked on and that were in the pipeline and then got accelerated, and then were ready for the market in less than two years. But here you start with a situation where you had no information six months ago and you expect a vaccine in two years — that is not something we have ever experienced before.

What are the potential downsides to fast-tracking a vaccine?

The first vaccine that is ready may not be the most effective one. The easiest to make may not always be the best. If people think we start vaccinating and there are failures, it can turn off the public and government officials from continuing funding. That is always a concern about putting something in the public domain too fast. People always expect it to be successful.

We know that only one out of 10 vaccines actually turns out to be very successful.

Are there any particular challenges in creating a vaccine for different age groups?

Young adults are generally the easiest to develop a vaccine for. They have the strongest immune system and are more resistant to infectious diseases than children and the elderly. Children have underdeveloped immune systems, and the elderly have the challenge that their immune system, like the rest of our body as we age, begins

to decline and is not as responsive and effective.

It’s possible — we have seen this with influenza — that we may have to design different vaccines for different populations. In flu, we give the elderly a higher dose of the same vaccine that we give young adults to give them the same immune response.

Sometimes it is dosage, sometimes it’s these compounds — adjuvants — that can be added to the vaccine. Adjuvants are stimulators of immune system.

What’s the status of your projects?

I have been working on influenza for over 20 years. We are developing a universal flu vaccine… and I’m taking the same technology from flu to coronavirus. We look at the number of strains that circulate, and using an algorithm, we identify the most dominant regions of multiple strains of the virus and engineer that into a vaccine.

So there is immune response against all versions of that pathogen. With the coronavirus (vaccine/project?), we want to do human seasonal coronavirus that people get as common colds, as well as SARS-1, SARS-2 (Covid) and MERS. We want to do them all. We want to pair our coronavirus vaccine with our universal flu vaccine and use

them together in a universal respiratory vaccine and do our first trials in the summer of 2021.

Once we have the first Covid vaccine, what happens to the other projects?

They will continue. One reason is, like I said, the first one may not be the most effective. The other is, economics comes into play. So if I can design a vaccine that’s just as effective but is cheaper, I’ll be able to sell it better than the

one that came first. For example, there are numerous flu vaccines made by multiple companies. I can easily imagine that to be the case with the coronavirus.

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