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.
What We Know So Far<p>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.</p><p>Pfizer has just <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/08/pfizer-biontech-vaccine-appears-effective-against-mutation-in-new-strains.html" target="_blank">released</a> results from the first of these studies, declaring that their vaccine <em>was</em> 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.</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.12.31.425021v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>study</u></a> which showed that the efficacy of neutralizing antibodies against this region dropped by more than ten-fold because of the mutation. </p><p>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. </p><p>"I'm quite optimistic that even with these mutations, immunity is not going to suddenly fail on us," <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2021/01/07/coronavirus-mutation-vaccine-strength/" target="_blank">Bloom told STAT</a>. "It might be gradually eroded, but it's not going to fail on us, at least in the short term."</p><p>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.</p><p> "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."</p><p>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.</p>
"Plug and Play" Vaccine Platforms<p>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.</p>
Regulatory Unknowns<p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not respond to requests for comment before press time.</p><p>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.</p><p>"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."</p><p>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. </p><p>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 <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/08/politics/biden-vaccine-strategy/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intention</a> 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.</p>
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.
Making Vaccines Less Fragile<p>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.<br></p><p>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."</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>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.</p><p>"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."</p>
Next-Generation Vaccine Technology<p>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.<br></p><p>"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."</p><p>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.</p><p>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."</p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>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." </p>
The Struggle of Low-Income Nations<p>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.</p><p>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 <a href="https://globalhealth.duke.edu/news/will-low-income-countries-be-left-behind-when-covid-19-vaccines-arrive" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>study</u></a> by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center has suggested that such hoarding means many low-income nations may not receive a vaccine until 2024.</p><p>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." </p>
By mid-March, Alpha Lee was growing restless. A pioneer of AI-driven drug discovery, Lee leads a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, but his lab had been closed amidst the government-initiated lockdowns spreading inexorably across Europe.
If the Moonshot proves successful, they hope it could serve as a future benchmark for finding new medicines for chronic diseases.
Having spoken to his collaborators across the globe – many of whom were seeing their own experiments and research projects postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic – he noticed a similar sense of frustration and helplessness in the face of COVID-19.
While there was talk of finding a novel treatment for the virus, Lee was well aware the process was likely to be long and laborious. Traditional methods of drug discovery risked suffering the same fate as the efforts to find a cure for SARS in the early 2000, which took years and were ultimately abandoned long before a drug ever reached the market.
To avoid such an outcome, Lee was convinced that global collaboration was required. Together with a collection of scientists in the UK, US and Israel, he launched the 'COVID Moonshot' – a project which encouraged chemists worldwide to share their ideas for potential drug designs. If the Moonshot proves successful, they hope it could serve as a future benchmark for finding new medicines for chronic diseases.
Solving a Complex Jigsaw
In February, ShanghaiTech University published the first detailed snapshots of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus's proteins using a technique called X-ray crystallography. In particular, they revealed a high-resolution profile of the virus's main protease – the part of its structure that enables it to replicate inside a host – and the main drug target. The images were tantalizing.
"We could see all the tiny pieces sitting in the structure like pieces of a jigsaw," said Lee. "All we needed was for someone to come up with the best idea of joining these pieces together with a drug. Then you'd be left with a strong molecule which sits in the protease, and stops it from working, killing the virus in the process."
Normally, ideas for how best to design such a drug would be kept as carefully guarded secrets within individual labs and companies due to their potential value. But as a result, the steady process of trial and error to reach an optimum design can take years to come to fruition.
However, given the scale of the global emergency, Lee felt that the scientific community would be open to collective brainstorming on a mass scale. "Big Pharma usually wouldn't necessarily do this, but time is of the essence here," he said. "It was a case of, 'Let's just rethink every drug discovery stage to see -- ok, how can we go as fast as we can?'"
On March 13, he launched the COVID moonshot, calling for chemists around the globe to come up with the most creative ideas they could think of, on their laptops at home. No design was too weird or wacky to be considered, and crucially nothing would be patented. The entire project would be done on a not-for-profit basis, meaning that any drug that makes it to market will have been created simply for the good of humanity.
It caught fire: Within just two weeks, more than 2,300 potential drug designs had been submitted. By the middle of July, over 10,000 had been received from scientists around the globe.
The Road Toward Clinical Trials
With so many designs to choose from, the team has been attempting to whittle them down to a shortlist of the most promising. Computational drug discovery experts at Diamond and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have enabled the Moonshot team to develop algorithms for predicting how quick and easy each design would be to make, and to predict how well each proposed drug might bind to the virus in real life.
The latter is an approach known as computational covalent docking and has previously been used in cancer research. "This was becoming more popular even before COVID-19, with several covalent drugs approved by the FDA in recent years," said Nir London, professor of organic chemistry at the Weizmann Institute, and one of the Moonshot team members. "However, all of these were for oncology. A covalent drug against SARS-CoV-2 will certainly highlight covalent drug-discovery as a viable option."
Through this approach, the team have selected 850 compounds to date, which they have manufactured and tested in various preclinical trials already. Fifty of these compounds - which appear to be especially promising when it comes to killing the virus in a test tube – are now being optimized further.
Lee is hoping that at least one of these potential drugs will be shown to be effective in curing animals of COVID-19 within the next six months, a step that would allow the Moonshot team to reach out to potential pharmaceutical partners to test their compounds in humans.
If the project does succeed, some believe it could open the door to scientific crowdsourcing as a future means of generating novel medicine ideas for other diseases. Frank von Delft, professor of protein science and structural biology at the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Medicine, described it as a new form of 'citizen science.'
"There's a vast resource of expertise and imagination that is simply dying to be tapped into," he said.
Others are slightly more skeptical, pointing out that the uniqueness of the current crisis has meant that many scientists were willing to contribute ideas without expecting any future compensation in return. This meant that it was easy to circumvent the traditional hurdles that prevent large-scale global collaborations from happening – namely how to decide who will profit from the final product and who will hold the intellectual property (IP) rights.
"I think it is too early to judge if this is a viable model for future drug discovery," says London. "I am not sure that without the existential threat we would have seen so many contributions, and so many people and institutions willing to waive compensation and future royalties. Many scientists found themselves at home, frustrated that they don't have a way to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, and this project gave them an opportunity. Plus many can get behind the fact that this project has no associated IP and no one will get rich off of this effort. This breaks down a lot of the typical barriers and red-tape for wider collaboration."
"If a drug would sprout from one of these crowdsourced ideas, it would serve as a very powerful argument to consider this mode of drug discovery further in the future."
However the Moonshot team believes that if they can succeed, it will at the very least send a strong statement to policy makers and the scientific community that greater efforts should be made to make such large-scale collaborations more feasible.
"All across the scientific world, we've seen unprecedented adoption of open-science, collaboration and collegiality during this crisis, perhaps recognizing that only a coordinated global effort could address this global challenge," says London. "If a drug would sprout from one of these crowdsourced ideas, it would serve as a very powerful argument to consider this mode of drug discovery further in the future."
[An earlier version of this article was 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.]