A new coronavirus vaccine has researchers excited as early animal testing shows that it could protect against current and future strains of COVID for a minimal price.
A new vaccine for all coronaviruses
The vaccine’s potential was discovered during animal testing, where it protected pigs from porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus (PEDV) - a pig model of coronavirus. Creator of the vaccine, UVA Health’s Professor Steven L. Zeichner, MD, PhD, believes that this innovative new vaccine might one day open the door for universal coronavirus jabs.
Zeichner and vaccine co-founder Xiang-Jin Meng, MD, PhD from Virginia Tech, created two vaccines, one to target PEDV and one for COVID-19 (the two viruses are distantly related). The benefit of testing these vaccines in pigs was that the researchers were able to observe the virus in its native host. Prior vaccine animal studies tend to use non-native hosts such as monkeys and hamsters, pigs also closely resemble humans in immunology.
The animal trial showed that both vaccines for PEDV and COVID-19 didn’t stop the pigs from becoming infected with PEDV, but it did prevent them from developing severe symptoms. The vaccines also prompted the pigs to establish a strengthened immune response to the virus. Researchers hope that this favourable response could also provide the same coronavirus protection in humans for both present and future strains.
The UVA/ Virginia Tech vaccine would overcome many of the significant obstacles present in global vaccine rollouts, as it is easy to transport and can be mass-produced using existing vaccine producing factories. Zeichner revealed:
Our new platform offers a new route to rapidly produce vaccines at very low cost that can be manufactured in existing facilities around the world, which should be particularly helpful for pandemic response.
How does the UVA/ Virginia Tech vaccine work?
The new vaccine is quite different to the existing mRNA vaccines provided by Pfizer and Moderna. It involves synthesising a piece of the virus’ DNA responsible for building a part of the virus. The DNA is placed into a plasmid which is then introduced to bacteria. Plasmids are able to reproduce within bacteria, and in doing so, instructs the bacteria to place proteins on their surface.
The bacteria used in this technique is E-coli. However, this type of E-coli has had many of its genes deleted. By deleting the genes that make up the outer membrane of the bacteria, the body’s immune system gains a heightened response to the vaccine antigens existing on the bacteria’s surface. To produce the vaccine, the bacteria is simply grown into a fermenter and later killed by a low dose of formalin. Zeichner continued to state that this vaccine method should be easy to manufacture all over the world and only takes about three weeks to produce:
Killed whole-cell vaccines are currently in widespread use to protect against deadly diseases like cholera and pertussis. Factories in many low-to-middle-income countries around the world are making hundreds of millions of doses of those vaccines per year now, for a $1 per dose or less. It may be possible to adapt those factories to make this new vaccine. Since the technology is very similar, the cost should be similar too.
Before the new coronavirus vaccine can be manufactured for the public, it must undergo human trials and be approved by the Food and Drug Administration as well as other international equivalents.