When the world's first Covid-19 vaccine received regulatory approval in November, it appeared that the end of the pandemic might be near. As one by one, the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Sputnik V vaccines reported successful Phase III results, the prospect of life without lockdowns and restrictions seemed a tantalizing possibility.
But for scientists with many years' worth of experience in studying how viruses adapt over time, it remained clear that the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus was far from over. "The more virus circulates, the more it is likely that mutations occur," said Professor Beate Kampmann, director of the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. "It is inevitable that new variants will emerge."
Since the start of the pandemic, dozens of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 – containing different mutations in the viral genome sequence - have appeared as it copies itself while spreading through the human population. The majority of these mutations are inconsequential, but in recent months, some mutations have emerged in the receptor binding domain of the virus's spike protein, increasing how tightly it binds to human cells. These mutations appear to make some new strains up to 70 percent more transmissible, though estimates vary and more lab experiments are needed. Such new strains include the B.1.1.7 variant - currently the dominant strain in the UK – and the 501Y.V2 variant, which was first found in South Africa.
"I'm quite optimistic that even with these mutations, immunity is not going to suddenly fail on us."
Because so many more people are becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a result, vaccinologists point out that these new strains will prolong the pandemic.
"It may take longer to reach vaccine-induced herd immunity," says Deborah Fuller, professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "With a more transmissible variant taking over, an even larger percentage of the population will need to get vaccinated before we can shut this pandemic down."
That is, of course, as long as the vaccinations are still highly protective. The South African variant, in particular, contains a mutation called E484K that is raising alarms among scientists. Emerging evidence indicates that this mutation allows the virus to escape from some people's immune responses, and thus could potentially weaken the effectiveness of current vaccines.
What We Know So Far
Over the past few weeks, manufacturers of the approved Covid-19 vaccines have been racing to conduct experiments, assessing whether their jabs still work well against the new variants. This process involves taking blood samples from people who have already been vaccinated and assessing whether the antibodies generated by those people can neutralize the new strains in a test tube.
Pfizer has just released results from the first of these studies, declaring that their vaccine was found to still be effective at neutralizing strains of the virus containing the N501Y mutation of the spike protein, one of the mutations present within both the UK and South African variants.
However, the study did not look at the full set of mutations contained within either of these variants. Earlier this week, academics at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle suggested that the E484K spike protein mutation could be most problematic, publishing a study which showed that the efficacy of neutralizing antibodies against this region dropped by more than ten-fold because of the mutation.
Thankfully, this development is not expected to make vaccines useless. One of the Fred Hutch researchers, Jesse Bloom, told STAT News that he did not expect this mutation to seriously reduce vaccine efficacy, and that more harmful mutations would need to accrue over time to pose a very significant threat to vaccinations.
"I'm quite optimistic that even with these mutations, immunity is not going to suddenly fail on us," Bloom told STAT. "It might be gradually eroded, but it's not going to fail on us, at least in the short term."
While further vaccine efficacy data will emerge in the coming weeks, other vaccinologists are keen to stress this same point: At most, there will be a marginal drop in efficacy against the new variants.
"Each vaccine induces what we call polyclonal antibodies targeting multiple parts of the spike protein," said Fuller. "So if one antibody target mutates, there are other antibody targets on the spike protein that could still neutralize the virus. The vaccine platforms also induce T-cell responses that could provide a second line of defense. If some virus gets past antibodies, T-cell responses can find and eliminate infected cells before the virus does too much damage."
She estimates that if vaccine efficacy decreases, for example from 95% to 85%, against one of the new variants, the main implications will be that some individuals who might otherwise have become severely ill, may still experience mild or moderate symptoms from an infection -- but crucially, they will not end up in intensive care.
"Plug and Play" Vaccine Platforms
One of the advantages of the technologies which have been pioneered to create the Covid-19 vaccines is that they are relatively straightforward to update with a new viral sequence. The mRNA technology used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and the adenovirus vectors used in the Astra Zeneca and Sputnik V vaccines, are known as 'plug and play' platforms, meaning that a new form of the vaccine can be rapidly generated against any emerging variant.
"With a rapid pipeline for manufacture established, these new vaccine technologies could enable production and distribution within 1-3 months of a new variant emerging."
While the technology for the seasonal influenza vaccines is relatively inefficient, requiring scientists to grow and cultivate the new strain in the lab before vaccines can be produced - a process that takes nine months - mRNA and adenovirus-based vaccines can be updated within a matter of weeks. According to BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin, a new version of their vaccine could be produced in six weeks.
"With a rapid pipeline for manufacture established, these new vaccine technologies could enable production and distribution within 1-3 months of a new variant emerging," says Fuller.
Fuller predicts that more new variants of the virus are almost certain to emerge within the coming months and years, potentially requiring the public to receive booster shots. This means there is one key advantage the mRNA-based vaccines have over the adenovirus technologies. mRNA vaccines only express the spike protein, while the AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines use adenoviruses - common viruses most of us are exposed to - as a delivery mechanism for genes from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
"For the adenovirus vaccines, our bodies make immune responses against both SARS-CoV-2 and the adenovirus backbone of the vaccine," says Fuller. "That means if you update the adenovirus-based vaccine with the new variant and then try to boost people, they may respond less well to the new vaccine, because they already have antibodies against the adenovirus that could block the vaccine from working. This makes mRNA vaccines more amenable to repeated use."
One of the key questions remains whether regulators would require new versions of the vaccine to go through clinical trials, a hurdle which would slow down the response to emerging strains, or whether the seasonal influenza paradigm will be followed, whereby a new form of the vaccine can be released without further clinical testing.
Regulators are currently remaining tight-lipped on which process they will choose to follow, until there is more information on how vaccines respond against the new variants. "Only when such information becomes available can we start the scientific evaluation of what data would be needed to support such a change and assess what regulatory procedure would be required for that," said Rebecca Harding, communications officer for the European Medicines Agency.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not respond to requests for comment before press time.
While vaccinologists feel it is unlikely that a new complete Phase III trial would be required, some believe that because these are new technologies, regulators may well demand further safety data before approving an updated version of the vaccine.
"I would hope if we ever have to update the current vaccines, regulatory authorities will treat it like influenza," said Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. "I would guess, at worst, they may want a new Phase 1 or 1 and 2 clinical trials."
Others suggest that rather than new trials, some bridging experiments may suffice to demonstrate that the levels of neutralizing antibodies induced by the new form of the vaccine are comparable to the previous one. "Vaccines have previously been licensed by this kind of immunogenicity data only, for example meningitis vaccines," said Kampmann.
While further mutations and strains of SARS-CoV-2 are inevitable, some scientists are concerned that the vaccine rollout strategy being employed in some countries -- of distributing a first shot to as many people as possible, and potentially delaying second shots as a result -- could encourage more new variants to emerge. Just today, the Biden administration announced its intention to release nearly all vaccine doses on hand right away, without keeping a reserve for second shots. This plan risks relying on vaccine manufacturing to ramp up quickly to keep pace if people are to receive their second shots at the right intervals.
"I am not very happy about this change as it could lead to a large number of people out there with partial immunity and this could select new mutations, and escalate the potential problem of vaccine escape."
The Biden administration's shift appears to conflict with the FDA's recent position that second doses should be given on a strict schedule, without any departure from the three- and four-week intervals established in clinical trials. Two top FDA officials said in a statement that changing the dosing schedule "is premature and not rooted solidly in the available evidence. Without appropriate data supporting such changes in vaccine administration, we run a significant risk of placing public health at risk, undermining the historic vaccination efforts to protect the population from COVID-19."
"I understand the argument of trying to get at least partial protection to as many people as possible, but I am concerned about the increased interval between the doses that is now being proposed," said Kampmann. "I am not very happy about this change as it could lead to a large number of people out there with partial immunity and this could select new mutations, and escalate the potential problem of vaccine escape."
But it's worth emphasizing that the virus is unlikely for now to accumulate enough harmful mutations to render the current vaccines completely ineffective.
"It will be very hard for the virus to evolve to completely evade the antibody responses the vaccines induce," said Fuller. "The parts of the virus that are targeted by vaccine-induced antibodies are essential for the virus to infect our cells. If the virus tries to mutate these parts to evade antibodies, then it could compromise its own fitness or even abort its ability to infect. To be sure, the virus is developing these mutations, but we just don't see these variants emerge because they die out."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.