Ssendi Bosco has long known to fear the rainy season. As deputy health officer of Mubende District, a region in Central Uganda, she is only too aware of the threat that heavy storms can pose to her area's fragile healthcare facilities.
In early October, persistent rain overwhelmed the power generator that supplies electricity to most of the region, causing a blackout for three weeks. The result was that most of Mubende's vaccine supplies against diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and polio went to waste. "The vaccines need to be constantly refrigerated, so the generator failing means that most of them are now unusable," she says.
This week, the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic received a major boost when Pfizer and their German partner BioNTech released interim results showing that their vaccine has proved more than 90 percent effective at preventing participants in their clinical trial from getting COVID-19.
But while Pfizer has already signed deals to supply the vaccine to the U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan and the European Union, Mubende's recent plight provides an indication of the challenges that distributors will face when attempting to ship a coronavirus vaccine around the globe, particularly to low-income nations.
Experts have estimated that somewhere between 12 billion and 15 billion doses will be needed to immunize the world's population against COVID-19, a staggering scale, and one that has never been attempted before. "The logistics of distributing COVID-19 vaccines have been described as one of the biggest challenges in the history of mankind," says Göran Conradson, managing director of Swedish vaccine manufacturer Ziccum.
But even these estimates do not take into account the potential for vaccine spoilage. Every year, the World Health Organization estimates that over half of the world's vaccines end up being wasted. This happens because vaccines are fragile products. From the moment they are made, to the moment they are administered, they have to be kept within a tightly controlled temperature range. Throughout the entire supply chain – transportation to an airport, the flight to another country, unloaded, distribution via trucks to healthcare facilities, and storage – they must be refrigerated at all times. This is known as the cold chain, and one tiny slip along the way means the vaccines are ruined.
"It's a chain, and any chain is only as strong as its weakest link," says Asel Sartbaeva, a chemist working on vaccine technologies at the University of Bath in the U.K.
For COVID-19, the challenge is even greater because some of the leading vaccine candidates need to be kept at ultracold temperatures. Pfizer's vaccine, for example, must be kept at -70 degrees Celsius, the kind of freezer capabilities rarely found outsides of specialized laboratories. Transporting such a vaccine across North America and Europe will be difficult enough, but supplying it to some of the world's poorest nations in Asia, Africa and South America -- where only 10 percent of healthcare facilities have reliable electricity -- might appear virtually impossible.
But technology may be able to come to the rescue.
Making Vaccines Less Fragile
Just as the world's pharmaceutical companies have been racing against the clock to develop viable COVID-19 vaccine candidates, scientists around the globe have been hastily developing new technologies to try and make vaccines less fragile. Some approaches involve various chemicals that can be added to the vaccine to make them far more resilient to temperature fluctuations during transit, while others focus on insulated storage units that can maintain the vaccine at a certain temperature even if there is a power outage.
Some of these concepts have already been considered for several years, but before COVID-19 there was less of a commercial incentive to bring them to market. "We never felt that there is a need for an investment in this area," explains Sam Kosari, a pharmacist at the University of Canberra, who researches the vaccine cold chain. "Some technologies were developed then to assist with vaccine transport in Africa during Ebola, but since that outbreak was contained, there hasn't been any serious initiative or reward to develop this technology further."
In her laboratory at the University of Bath, Sartbaeva is using silica - the main constituent of sand – to encase the molecular components within a vaccine. Conventional vaccines typically contain protein targets from the virus, which the immune system learns to recognize. However, when they are exposed to temperature changes, these protein structures degrade, and lose their shape, making the vaccine useless. Sartbaeva compares this to how an egg changes its shape and consistency when it is boiled.
When silica is added to a vaccine, it molds to each protein, forming little protective cages around them, and thus preventing them from being affected by temperature changes. "The whole idea is that if we can create a shell around each protein, we can protect it from physically unravelling which is what causes the deactivation of the vaccine," she says.
Other scientists are exploring similar methods of making vaccines more resilient. Researchers at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford recently conducted a clinical trial in which they added carbohydrates to a dengue vaccine, to assess whether it became easier to transport.
Both research groups are now hoping to collaborate with the COVID-19 vaccine candidates being developed by AstraZeneca and Imperial College, assuming they become available in 2021.
"It's good we're all working on this big problem, as different methods could work better for different types of COVID-19 vaccines," says Sartbaeva. "I think it will be needed."
Next-Generation Vaccine Technology
While these different technologies could be utilized to try and protect the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines, efforts are also underway to develop completely new methods of vaccination. Much of this research is still in its earliest stages, but it could yield a second generation of COVID-19 vaccine candidates in 2022 and beyond.
"After the first round of mass vaccination, we could well observe regional outbreaks of the disease appearing from time to time in the coming years," says Kosari. "This is the time where new types of vaccines could be helpful."
One novel method being explored by Ziccum and others is dry powder vaccines. The idea is to spray dry the final vaccine into a powder form, where it is more easily preserved and does not require any special cooling while being transported or stored. People then receive the vaccine by inhaling it, rather than having it injected into their bloodstream.
Conradson explains that the concept of dry powder vaccines works on the same principle as dried food products. Because there is no water involved, the vaccine's components are far less affected by temperature changes. "It is actually the water that leads to the destruction of potency of a vaccine when it gets heated," he says. "We're looking to develop a dry powder vaccine for COVID-19 but this will be a second-generation vaccine. At the moment there are more than 200 first-generation candidates, all of which are using conventional technologies due to the timeframe pressures, which I think was the correct decision."
Dry powder COVID-19 vaccines could also be combined with microneedle patches, to allow people to self-administer the vaccine themselves in their own home. Microneedles are miniature needles – measured in millionths of a meter – which are designed to deliver medicines through the skin with minimal pain. So far, they have been used mainly in cosmetic products, but many scientists are working to use them to deliver drugs or vaccines.
At Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Mark Prausnitz is leading a couple of projects looking at incorporating COVID-19 vaccines into microneedle patches with the hope of running some early-stage clinical trials over the next couple of years. "The advantage is that they maintain the vaccine in a stable, dry state until it dissolves in the skin," he explains.
Prausnitz and others believe that once the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines become available, biotech and pharmaceutical companies will show more interest in adapting their products so they can be used in a dried form or with a microneedle patch. "There is so much pressure to get the COVID vaccine out that right now, vaccine developers are not interested in incorporating a novel delivery method," he says. "That will have to come later, once the pressure is lessened."
The Struggle of Low-Income Nations
For low-income nations, time will only tell whether technological advancements can enable them to access the first wave of licensed COVID-19 vaccines. But reports already suggest that they are in danger of becoming an afterthought in the race to procure vaccine supplies.
While initiatives such as COVAX are attempting to make sure that vaccine access is equitable, high and middle-income countries have already inked deals to secure 3.8 billion doses, with options for another 5 billion. One particularly sobering study by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center has suggested that such hoarding means many low-income nations may not receive a vaccine until 2024.
For Bosco and the residents of Mubende District in Uganda, all they can do is wait. In the meantime, there is a more pressing problem: fixing their generators. "We hope that we can receive a vaccine," she says. "But the biggest problem will be finding ways to safely store it. Right now we cannot keep any medicines or vaccines in the conditions they need, because we don't have the funds to repair our power generators."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”