Can we get a vaccine by November? La Jolla immunology expert discusses how that would happen

Posted: 8:11 PM, May 01, 2020
Updated: 2020-05-02 10:38:08-04
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LA JOLLA, Calif. (KGTV) - There are eight vaccines undergoing clinical trials throughout the world, according to the latest list from the World Health Organization.

“The big question about what is the status of vaccine development?” said Professor Shane Crotty with the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. “I think the answer is very early, but moving faster than its ever moved before.”

Crotty runs an infectious disease lab at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. He started that 16 years ago when he learned there were less than 30 licensed vaccines for humans.

ABC10News podcast conversation with Professor Crotty:

“My lab is obsessed with vaccine immunology. Vaccines are extraordinary medicine. There are about 29 licensed human vaccines, most of them work on protective antibody responses. So we want to understand, how does your immune system generate protective antibody responses?”

That type of research is incredibly consequential for helping determine what type of vaccine should be made to fight the coronavirus and what type of response it should elicit in the human body.

Why vaccines are difficult

The scientific community has made big strides in the past 16 years, but he says vaccine development is still notoriously difficult.

“Any virus that can actually cause disease has at least one good immune evasion trick,” said Crotty. “One way in which the virus evades immune responses that can change which way you have to have immunity against that virus.”

Crotty said there is one big question we still don’t understand about this coronavirus. That is, how does the body’s own immune system fight if off, and when it does, are you then immune?

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“One of those has been some degree of panic about do infected people actually develop an immune response, or is this virus somehow silent? So if it turned out people didn’t actually develop immunity, that would be bad news for vaccine development,” said Crotty.

That’s because, it’s easier to develop a vaccine that mimics what a human immune response normally would do.

“If people don’t normally develop immunity, now you have to figure out a vaccine to convince the human body to do something it normally doesn’t do,” said Crotty.

San Diego company developing a vaccine

That is a question his lab is working on and has been producing results that he hopes to publish next week. In the meantime, the race is on to use what we already know to push forward potential candidates.

Inovio Pharmaceuticals, based in San Diego, is one of the eight already in clinical trials.

They started phase one in early April, enrolling 40 volunteers to receive their vaccine.

“Firstly and most importantly Phase one clinical trial assesses the safety of the vaccine, which is absolutely paramount, we check to see there are no adverse side effects,” said Kate Broderick, the Senior Vice President of R&D at Inovio in an interview on April 7.

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She says they hope to have data from phase one by June, at which point they will start manufacturing a large quantity of vaccines for the next phase. Though, at the time of the interview she estimated that wouldn’t begin until this winter.

“We set an internal goal of having 1 million vaccines for testing by end of 2020,” she said.

Their vaccine is unique in that it’s known as a DNA vaccine, a much newer type of vaccine.

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DNA vaccines have been approved in veterinary medicine, but has yet to be licensed as a vaccine for humans that could prevent infection. “There are at least six different general ways to try and make a vaccine,” said Crotty.

“People are using all is of those platforms or technologies to develop COVID-19 vaccines. Almost certainly one of them will be quite good at protecting people,” he added.

The theory about DNA vaccines according to the World Health Organization, is that they have “a number of potential advantages over traditional approaches, including the stimulation of both B- and T-cell responses, improved vaccine stability, the absence of any infectious agent and the relative ease of large-scale manufacture.”

So, that’s exciting if we can get them to work in humans.

What vaccines are being developed

That doesn’t mean more traditional approaches won’t work too. In fact, there is already some research showing that a more traditional vaccine, tested on monkeys in China, may be enough.

“As of last week there was a first pre-print, not peer reviewed, but publicly posted study,” said Crotty. “I looked at it and the quality of data looked good. It was a very simple vaccine strategy done in China. It didn’t elicit a fantastic immune response, yet it was still protective. So all those things are encouraging.”

Another vaccine candidate being developed by researchers at the University of Oxford has shown similar results in monkeys and is already being tested in humans.

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According to a reports from India, the Serum Institute of India has already decided to start manufacturing 60 million doses of it, before the clinical trials have been completed, in the hopes that if the vaccine does work it can be distributed immediately.

That’s a tactic now being considered by the Trump Administration, which is creating a new project called “Operation Warp Speed.”

According to CNN, the goal is to make 100 million doses available by November, which given what we know about the testing timeline, would mean manufacturing hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines that may never be used, with the hope that one of them would work.

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“There are different things that can be fast tracked about vaccine production essentially, but they have a real cost,” said Crotty.

“Most candidate vaccines fail clinical trials. The success rate is low, so under normal circumstances there is no way you’d produce or manufacture some vaccine that had a 10 percent chance of actually working. Obviously 2020 is not normal times.”