COVID-19: New vaccine under development is insured against virus mutations Science & Tech News
British scientists are developing a COVID vaccine with built-in insurance against mutations in the virus.
The jab developed at the University of Nottingham should continue to be effective even if a new variant emerges that eliminates other vaccines.
The prototype has already passed pre-clinical testing and will begin testing on volunteers within weeks.
Professor Lindy Durrant, an immunologist at the university and head of the spin-off ScanCell, said the next generation of vaccines must be better prepared to fight the virus as it “learns” to evade the immune system.
“What happened was predictable,” she told Sky News exclusively.
“We have the advantage of learning from the shortcomings of the first generation of vaccines in order to make the second generation better.”
The three vaccines currently in use are all based on the genetic sequence of the spike protein used by the virus to attach to human cells.
However, mutations have appeared in the spike protein that have allowed new variants to spread rapidly in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. They can make existing vaccines less effective.
The Nottingham vaccine contains the spike protein, but also some of the “nucleocapsid” protein, a shell that envelops and protects the virus’ genetic material. It mutates much more slowly.
“It doubles the chances that you will win the virus,” said Professor Durrant.
“The probability that both mutate at the same time is unlikely.”
Animal studies show that the nucleocapsid protein triggers a strong T-cell response, a separate arm of the immune system against antibodies.
Professor Durrant said, “We get levels of antibodies as good, if not better, than others [vaccines]and more and better T cell responses.
“But that’s with animals, and we have to move inside humans to see if it works.”
The vaccine is scheduled to begin early-stage clinical trials this spring, funded by Innovate UK.
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Vaccine developers will have to face the rapidly developing virus.
Moderna, which will ship 17 million doses of its vaccine to the UK from April, is already testing an updated version against the South African variant. Other companies are likely to do the same.
Since only existing shocks are optimized, only small tests are likely to be required. However, it would be about three months before newly formulated vaccines could be manufactured and marketed on a large scale.
In the meantime, if a new variant spreads quickly, there is a risk that populations will be vulnerable.
Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said it might be advisable to “hedge your bets”.
“We’re talking about an arms race between the immune system and the virus. What can move better and faster to win the battle?” he said.
“I can see the logic [to the Nottingham vaccine]. Our lab has seen evidence that the immune system sees many different parts of the virus and responds to the protein they are looking at.
“What we don’t know is how much extra this brings to the party.”
Staffordshire-based Cobra Biologics is already producing batches of the Nottingham vaccine to test production and prepare for trials.
Alexandra Brownfield, the company’s business development director, said the vaccine is “grown” in cells in a bioreactor. Just 50 liters of a soup made from cells and nutrients can produce “a few thousand doses” in four to six weeks.
She said making the first batch of vaccine was a thrill: “It’s a really good feeling, but we’re always thinking about the next batch.
“It’s a high pressure environment. While it’s a relief, we then think we have work to do with the next batch.”