The Biggest Challenge for a COVID-19 Vaccine
Although no one has conducted a survey on the topic, it's safe to say that a single hope unites much of humanity at the present moment: the prospect of a vaccine for COVID-19, which has infected more than 9 million people worldwide, killed nearly 500,000, and sent the global economy into a tailspin since it first appeared in China last December.
"We've never delivered something to every corner of the world before."
Scientists are racing to make that vision a reality. As of this writing, 11 vaccine candidates are in clinical trials and over 100 others are in preclinical development, in a dozen countries. Pointing to new technology and compressed testing protocols, experts predict a winner could emerge in 12 to 18 months—a fraction of the four years it took to develop the previous record-holder, the mumps vaccine, in the 1960s. Teams at Oxford University and Boston-based Moderna Therapeutics say they could have a product ready even sooner, if the formulas they're testing prove safe and effective. A just-announced White House initiative, Operation Warp Speed, aims to fast-track multiple candidates, with the goal of delivering 100 million doses in November and another 200 million by January 2021.
These timetables could prove wildly over-optimistic. But even if the best-case scenario comes true, and a viable COVID-19 vaccine emerges this fall, a gargantuan challenge remains: getting the shot to everyone who needs it. Epidemiologists figure that at least 70 percent of Earth's population—or 5.6 billion people—would have to be inoculated to achieve "herd immunity," in which each person who catches the disease passes it to less than one other individual. "In order to stop the pandemic, we need to make the vaccine available to almost every person on the planet," Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates blogged in April, as his foundation pledged $300 million to the effort. "We've never delivered something to every corner of the world before."
The difficulties are partly logistical, partly political, and largely a combination of the two. Overcoming those obstacles will require unprecedented cooperation among national governments, international organizations, and profit-minded corporations—in an era when nationalist rivalries are rampant and global leadership is up for grabs.
That may be tougher than developing the vaccine itself.
Manufacturing and distributing billions of vaccine doses would be a daunting task even in the most harmonious of times. Take the packaging problem. The vaccines under development range from old-school (based on inactivated or weakened viruses) to cutting-edge (using snippets of RNA or DNA to train the immune system to attack the invader). Some may work better than others for different patient groups—the young versus the elderly, for example. All, however, must be stored in vials and administered with syringes.
Among the handful of U.S. companies that manufacture such products, many must import the special glass tubing for vials, as well as the polypropylene for syringe barrels and the rubber or silicone for stoppers and plungers. These materials are commonly sourced from China and India, where lockdowns and export bans restrict supply. Rick Bright, the ousted director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), claims he was ignored when he warned the Trump Administration that a medical-glass shortage was looming before the coronavirus crisis hit; securing enough to vaccinate 300 million Americans, he told Congress in May, could take up to two years.
Getting the vaccine to poorer countries presents further hurdles. To begin with, there's refrigeration. Inactivated or live vaccines must be kept between 2 and 8 degrees Centigrade (or 35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit); RNA vaccines typically require much colder temperatures—as low as -80 degrees. This makes storage and transport challenging in parts of the world that lack reliable electricity. DNA vaccines don't need cold storage, but (like RNA vaccines) they remain experimental. They've never been approved to treat any human disease.
Tracking vaccine distribution is another conundrum for low- to-middle-income countries. "Supply chain management is really about information," explains Rebecca Weintraub, assistant professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Better Evidence project at Harvard's Ariadne Labs. "It's about leveraging data to determine demand, predict behavior, and understand the flow of the product itself." Systems for collecting and analyzing such data can be hard to find in poorer regions, she notes. What's more, many people in those areas lack any type of ID card, making it difficult to know who has or hasn't received a vaccine.
Weintraub and two coauthors published an article in April in the Harvard Business Review, suggesting solutions to these and other developing-world problems: solar direct-drive refrigerators, app-based data-capture systems, biometric digital IDs. But such measures—not to mention purchasing adequate supplies of vaccine—would require massive funding.
And that's where the logistical begins to overlap with the political.
Global Access Versus "Vaccine Nationalism"
An array of institutions have already begun laying the groundwork for achieving worldwide, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. In February, the World Bank and the Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) cohosted a global consultation on funding vaccine development and manufacturing. In late April, the World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with dozens of governments, nonprofits, and industry leaders, launched a program called the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator to expedite such efforts.
Soon afterward, the European Union, along with six countries and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, held a Coronavirus Global Response telethon that raised $8 billion to support Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance—a public-private partnership that subsidizes immunization in low-income countries. The United States and Russia, however, chose not to participate.
This snub by the world's remaining superpower and one of its principal challengers worried many observers. "I am concerned about what I call vaccine nationalism," CEPI executive director Richard Hatchett told the Los Angeles Times. "That's the tension between obligations elected leaders will feel to protect the lives of their citizens" versus the imperative for global sharing.
Some signs point to a possible rerun of the hoarding that accompanied the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, when wealthy nations bought up virtually all vaccine supplies—denying them to poorer countries, and sometimes to one another. Operation Warp Speed has declared an "America First" policy for any vaccine arising from its efforts. Pharma giant Sanofi recently suggested that it would take a similar approach, since the U.S. was first to fund the company's COVID-19 research. (Sanofi's CEO backtracked after officials in France, where the firm is headquartered, protested.) The Oxford group, which is partnering with British-based drug maker AstraZeneca, intends to prioritize Great Britain.
Yet momentum is building for more generous strategies as well. In May, over 100 current and former world leaders, along with prominent economists and public health experts, issued an open letter calling for a "people's vaccine" for COVID-19, which would be patent-free, distributed globally, and available to all countries free of charge. At the WHO's annual World Health Assembly, all 194 member states accepted a resolution urging that vaccines for the disease be made available as a "global public good"—though the U.S. dissociated itself from a clause proposing a patent pool to keep costs down, which it argued might disincentivize "innovators who will be essential to the solutions the whole world needs."
Gavi, for its part, plans to launch a mechanism designed to encourage those innovators while promoting accessibility: an advance market commitment, in which countries pledge to purchase a vaccine, with no money down. Future contributions will be based on the value of the product to their health systems and their ability to pay.
"It's essential to realize that a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere."
A few private-sector players are stepping up, too. U.S.-based Johnson & Johnson, which has received nearly half a billion dollars from the federal government for COVID-19 vaccine research, has promised to provide up to 900 million doses on a not-for-profit basis, if its trials pan out. Other companies have agreed to produce vaccines on a "cost-plus" basis, with a smaller-than-usual profit margin.
How Sharing Can Pay Off
No one knows how all this will work out if and when a vaccine becomes available. (Another wild card: Trump has announced that he is cutting U.S. ties to the WHO over its alleged favoritism toward China, which could hobble the agency's ability to coordinate distribution -- though uncertainty remains about the process of withdrawal and reversing course may still be possible.) To public health experts, however, it's clear that ensuring accessibility is not just a matter of altruism.
"A historic example is smallpox," Rebecca Weintraub observes. "When it kept getting reintroduced into high-income countries from low-income countries, the rich countries realized it was worth investing in the vaccine for countries that couldn't afford it." After a two-decade campaign led by the WHO, the last case of this ancient scourge was diagnosed in 1977.
Conversely, vaccine nationalism doesn't just hurt poor countries. During the H1N1 pandemic, which killed an estimated 284,000 people worldwide, production problems led to shortages in the United States. But Australia stopped a domestic manufacturer from exporting doses to the U.S until all Aussies had been immunized.
Such considerations, Weintraub believes, might help convince even the most reluctant rich-country leaders that an accessible vaccine—if deployed in an epidemiologically targeted way—would serve both the greater good and the national interest. "I suspect the pressures put on our politicians to act globally will be significant," she says.
Other analysts share her guarded optimism. Kelly Moore, who teaches health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, oversaw Tennessee's immunization programs for more than a decade, and later became a member of the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group—a panel of international experts that in 2019 released a report titled "Accelerating the Development of a Universal Influenza Vaccine." The 117-page document provided a road map toward a long-sought goal: creating a flu shot that doesn't need to be reformulated each year to target changing viral strains.
"One lesson we learned was that it's crucial to deploy financial resources in a systematic way to support coordination among laboratories that would typically be competitors," Moore says. And that, she adds, is happening with COVID-19, despite nationalist frictions: scientists from Sanofi joining forces with those at rival GSK; researchers at other companies allying with teams at government laboratories; university labs worldwide sharing data across borders. "I have been greatly encouraged to see the amount of global collaboration involved in this enterprise. Partners are working together who would normally never be partners."
For Moore, whose 77-year-old mother survived a bout with the disease, the current pandemic has hit close to home. "It's essential to realize that a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere," she says. "Morally and ethically, we have a tremendous obligation to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to an affordable vaccine, irrespective of where they live."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online. For this reprinting of the article, we have updated the latest statistics on COVID-19 and related global news.]
CORRECTION: A sentence about DNA vaccines incorrectly stated that they require cold storage, like RNA vaccines. The error has been fixed.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”