Research experts say using existing research on the coronavirus, it should not be difficult to reconfigure a Covid-19 vaccine if the current line of vaccines fail to block the mutating variants.
Researchers are racing to establish whether the vaccines currently rolled out across the globe are effective against the 501Y.V2 variant, identified by South Africa genomics experts late last year.
Scientists have raised fears that the Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa can evade antibodies and may reduce the efficacy of the vaccines.
Responding to questions from Sub-Saharan journalists on the Covid-19 vaccines, President of Global Immunisation at the Sabin Vaccine Institute, Dr Bruce Gellin, said should the vaccine fail to block the Covid-19 what was crucial was to readjust the vaccine accordingly.
Sabin Vaccine Institute is located in Washington, D.C. in the United States and is a non profit organisation promoting global vaccine development, availability, and use.
“Looking at influenza regarding circulating viruses, we can say well the virus has changed enough from last year so we should make a slightly different vaccine. We need to watch it right now but the studies show that the vaccine should continue to work,” Dr Gellin said.
He said concerns on the efficacy of the vaccine against the variants was not a surprise, as studies on influenza showed viruses mutated frequently.
“The Covid-19 vaccines have to be periodically adjusted if the target isn’t clear. I think what we see here and what’s going to be important is the laboratory studies that look how well we see what is going to happen to antibodies of people who have been vaccinated and how well they neutralise this virus,” Dr Gellin said.
“These studies seem to be going on now and right now these seem to be showing that even the strains that are mutated are going to be impacted by the vaccine but I think we will have to continue to watch this.”
Dr Gellin likened the Covid-19 vaccine to a lock and key system, where it was meant to block the virus from entering the cell.
“We have had keys that are bent and didn’t quite open the lock but sometimes they do open. The vaccine may not be as effective with some of the mutations but there will be a likelihood for it to be effective,” he said.
He also explained that a Covid-19 vaccine was developed faster as it was built on existing scientific work around the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
SARS appeared in 2002 in China and spread worldwide within a few months, although it was quickly contained.
It was transmitted through droplets that enter the air when someone with the disease coughs, sneezes or talks but no known transmission has occurred since 2004.
MERS broke out in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and is a species of coronavirus which infects humans, bats and camels.
“Scientists didn’t start from scratch or from zero. There’s been work on corona vaccines for a long time – SARS and MERS were other corona vaccines for which there was a huge effort to develop vaccines and SARS-because of the way that virus was transmitted and number of things.
“SARS could be prevented without a vaccine so vaccine efforts didn’t go all way through to developing a final vaccine in the same way we are seeing it now. MERS is a similar one that came forward with a huge effort on developing a vaccine. I think it was that work that was the basis of what we are seeing now,” Dr Gellin said.
The Covid-19 vaccination programme was named Operation Warp Speed, a public private partnership initiated by the US government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
The first news report of Operation Warp Speed was on April 29, 2020, and the programme was officially announced on May 15, 2020.
Dr Gellin said from the existing knowledge, people understood more about coronaviruses and looking at Covid-19 knew it was a virus whose spike protein has to enter the human cell to attack.
“The basis was to then block the Covid-19 virus from entering cells and there was some huge amount of work previously for that. A critical part of that was on stabilising, developing something that was a stable molecule for the immune system to go after. So 10 years of work of science and knowledge was there before Operation Warp Speed even stood up, where scientists sought to shorten timelines in a way that inspired confidence. There was also huge scientific collaboration, usually, scientific work is much more competitive but researchers shared their insight which helped shorten timelines,” he said.