Read: The plan that could give us our lives back
The science is paying off. Novavax, a Maryland-based company working on this type of vaccine, recently reported the results of its Phase 1 trial. The levels of antibodies generated were stunning, about four times higher than those in individuals who are recovering from a COVID-19 infection.
Scientists are also using different strains of another virus, adenovirus, as a vector or a missile to deliver genes that code for these same spike proteins and that also provoke an immune response. The vector has been engineered in the lab to be replication-defective; that is, the vector is able to deliver the spike gene into humans but once it’s done its job, the vector cannot replicate any further. At least three groups are testing these vectors. A University of Oxford group, in partnership with AstraZeneca, has employed an adenovirus from chimpanzees and has already entered Phase 3 trials in humans. The Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center group, in partnership with Janssen Pharmaceutica, is using Ad26, a human adenovirus, and the Chinese-based CanSino Biologics has begun Phase 3 trials with yet another human adenovirus, Ad5.
These examples are not just beautiful science (although they are beautiful science). By harnessing the increased power of the biological sciences, researchers are developing entirely new ways of rapidly developing vaccines.
My optimism doesn’t stop with these early results, although they are key. I’m also encouraged because at least five very different approaches (I’ve walked through only three above) are being explored to make a vaccine. As we say in Canada, if you want to win, you have to take many shots on goal.
Equally important is the unprecedented global collaboration among scientists around the world, as well as the high degree of cooperation between scientists and clinicians, biopharmaceutical companies, government, philanthropic funders, and regulators. They are all working together toward the common goal of developing as quickly as possible a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19.
I don’t know which of the vaccine candidates undergoing clinical testing in humans will ultimately be shown to be safe and effective. They might all prove effective, albeit in different age groups or in people with different preexisting conditions. But the encouraging news is that all of the vaccine candidates that have entered trials in humans so far are safe and have elicited high levels of antibodies against COVID-19. Some have also been shown to activate the cellular arm of our immune system, another crucial component of our defenses against foreign pathogens.
The public-health imperative to obtain a safe and effective vaccine as quickly as possible goes hand in hand with the mandate that the approval process be above any political considerations and solely based on data from the clinical trials. Anything else risks losing the public’s confidence in a vaccine or, in a worst-case scenario, might result in a vaccine that is less effective than those that might be approved later, or the widespread administration of a vaccine that turns out to have serious adverse side effects. That would be a public-health tragedy.