With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading fast, overwhelming health systems, and taking lives at unacceptable rates, there’s no time to lose in developing a vaccine against it. Development efforts are underway around the world, many of which are starting largely from scratch. One candidate vaccine, however, has been ready and waiting. It was originally designed to address the coronavirus that caused the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic but may also have the power to prevent COVID-19. Now, a new collaboration between Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, and PATH is setting out to assess that potential power by accelerating the vaccine’s advancement into early clinical testing.
We sat down with one of the vaccine’s developers, associate dean of Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, to shed light on the particulars.
How did this vaccine come about?
Between 2011 and 2016, Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital’s Center for Vaccine Development led a consortium with the New York Blood Center, UTMB Galveston, and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research to advance vaccines for SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The platform for the vaccines used a recombinant protein similar to the technology used for certain hepatitis B vaccines worldwide. In the new project, we’ll be evaluating the SARS vaccine candidate developed by that consortium, which has shown promising results in preclinical studies but never advanced to clinical trials.
Why is a SARS vaccine relevant to COVID-19?
Spike-like structures on the surface of coronavirus give the appearance of a crown (the word is derived from corona in Latin) and enable the virus to attack cells. Specifically, the receptor binding domain (RBD), within the spike protein, is the minimal component required by the virus to dock onto the human receptor and initiate the process of entering the cell. The coronaviruses responsible for SARS and COVID-19 are genetically very similar. Their spike proteins and structures, especially the RBD domains, also bear similarities that suggest that the SARS vaccine potentially could be used to prevent COVID-19—enabling people’s immune systems to recognize and defend against both viruses.
“COVID-19 demonstrates the world’s vulnerability to infectious disease outbreaks and highlights the importance of preparedness, making the need for a vaccine urgent.”— Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi
What is the new project setting out to do?
The only way for us to understand the extent of this vaccine’s potential to address COVID-19 is to examine its performance in people, so that’s what this project is gearing up to do. With PATH, we’re ironing out the last few manufacturing, regulatory, and clinical study planning activities so that, later this year, we can start the first study in adults (Phase 1) to assess the vaccine’s safety and ability to elicit an immune response. What’s really helpful is that most of the work to get it ready for the clinic was already done in years past, including producing material according to good manufacturing practice standards—so we’re ahead of the game in many respects. The clinical study is anticipated to be conducted by and at Baylor, and to be sponsored by PATH. Results from the study will inform decisions about the vaccine’s future development.
Who will benefit from such a vaccine, if successful?
COVID-19 demonstrates the world’s vulnerability to infectious disease outbreaks and highlights the importance of preparedness, making the need for a vaccine urgent. This vaccine, if successful, is designed to meet that global need; however, as with all disease outbreaks, COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting underserved and marginalized people everywhere. It’s low- and middle-income countries like my home country of Honduras that face the greatest peril due to COVID-19 because of weaker health systems and difficulty in executing mitigation tactics like routine handwashing and social distancing. That’s why Baylor and PATH are aligned in focusing our development efforts on ensuring the vaccine’s affordability, accessibility, and availability for low- and middle-income countries.
In this COVID-19 era, what’s your hope for the future?
My hope is that a safe and effective vaccine can be developed as quickly as possible to protect people in all corners of the globe from COVID-19, stall transmission, provide herd immunity, and prevent a pandemic like this from ever happening again. Moreover though, I hope that this pandemic will become the impetus for achieving better preparedness and health equity in the future. It’s exciting to be part of the effort to get there and to be partnering with PATH along the way.