Unfortunately, not all viruses are subject to successful human vaccination. That could be the case for COVID-19 as well. Despite the hope and optimism with dozens of vaccines in the pipeline, what if it just isn’t’ possible to develop a candidate that works. This dismal outlook, hopefully not an outcome, must be understood and factored into any contingency planning at the state, national, and global level.
Recently esteemed science writer Jeff Wise on assignment for the New York (Intelligencer), raised this distressing and pessimistic view—not by the way to help the publication sell more advertising nor for generating a conflict. Mr. Wise simply delineates what could just turn out to be the facts of life.
Wise notes that with so many successful vaccines addressing viral diseases—from smallpox, and polio to mumps and tetanus—not to mention the fact that we now live in what can be truly considered an advanced biotech Renaissance period—that it would be nearly impossible for one of these impressive ventures to not nail the vaccine. But as it turns out, according to Adolfo García-Sastre, director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: “Some viruses are very easy to make a vaccine for, and some are very complicated.” García-Sastre further directs: “It depends on the specific characteristics of how the virus infects.”
COCVID-19 is a Nasty Pathogen
As it turns out, SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen behind the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to exist on the challenging end of the spectrum, at least according to researchers queried by Wise. TrialSite News briefly summarizes the argument for this dismal outlook and provides a link to Mr. Wise’s piece which we hope you read. This pathogen is known as “novel” for a reason and a direct scientifically-assured linear path to treatment isn’t guaranteed.
Data Points Representing a Challenge
SARS-CoV-2 is closely related to SARS which killed over 700 in Asian from 2002 to mid-2003. Rachel Roper, professor immunology at East Carolina University, participated in the effort to develop a SARS vaccine and reported, “They really are very similar viruses, both virulent and contagious.” As they are alike, logically one would think that the response to the vaccine’s might be very similar. Researchers unfortunately ran into challenges with animal models. They found that the drugs triggered the host’s immune system but unfortunately wasn’t successful at defending against illness. Mr. Wise writes that Roper fears COVID-19 may be one of those viruses that represents a real challenge for any vaccination product. The author reminds us that the FDA hasn’t approved any human vaccine targeting the coronavirus family—whether it be SARS or MERS, not to mention varieties of the common cold.
What about the “Immune Enhancement” Nightmare?
In this scenario, the vaccine actually makes the infection’s symptoms even worse. TrialSite News has monitored the Philippines case where some executives from French Sanofi Pasteur could receive over 40 years in prison. Why? While 80,000 school children were given a vaccine known as Dengvaxia, it turned out that some of the children faced extremely dangerous to deadly reactions. Over 600 children died.
SARS-COV-2 is a Wild-Card
The novel coronavirus can be considered an unorthodox, unpredictable, and unrestrained pathogen. It doesn’t necessarily follow a familiar protocol, and as Dr. Anthony Fauci reminded the nation, it follows its own timeline. Hence Wise refers to a recent study in China that discovered many who had the disease revealed diminished (or none at all) antibodies despite the recovery. Counterintuitively could it be that even though one gets infected with the pathogen they can actually get infected again. We still aren’t sure.
The Race is On!
An upbeat crew, TrialSite News has published an ongoing list of the 2020 COVID-19 vaccine race. Dozens of companies, government institutes, and academic medical centers are working furiously around the clock to develop and commercialize the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Mr. Wise with New York (Intelligencer) emphasizes the hope that one of them (hopefully multiple groups) will overcome any obstacles to break free to the finish line. But he is wise to raise the concern of a different outcome: governments, academic medical and research centers and the private sector should collectively convene for a Plan B just in case.