The Corner

Health Care

Developing a Vaccine Won’t Be Easy . . . but That Doesn’t Mean It Will Be Impossible

A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication together with Trinity College in Dublin shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus, which is the type of virus linked to COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, February 18, 2020. (NEXU Science Communication/via Reuters)

The world may have a fifth piece of consequential good news, in addition to the four listed below.

On Friday, the pharmaceutical company Sorrento Therapeutics issued a release announcing what would be a remarkable breakthrough against the coronavirus, an antibody that appeared to offer extraordinary protection from the virus:

Among the antibodies showing neutralizing activity, one antibody stood out for its ability to completely block SARS-CoV-2 infection of healthy cells in the experiments. STI-1499 completely neutralized the virus infectivity at a very low antibody dose, making it a prime candidate for further testing and development. Initial biochemical and biophysical analyses also indicate STI-1499 is a potentially strong antibody drug candidate.

Sorrento plans to request priority evaluation and accelerated review from regulators to determine the best pathway to make any potential treatment available as soon as possible. Sorrento’s existing state-of-the-art cGMP antibody manufacturing facility in San Diego is expected to be able to produce up to two hundred thousand doses per month and the Company intends to produce a million doses at risk while seeking FDA approval for any STI-1499 product candidate. The Company is seeking potential government support and pharmaceutical partners to further scale up STI-1499 manufacturing capacity with a goal of potentially providing tens of millions of doses in a short period of time to meet the vast projected demand.

If this pans out, the antibody would work as both a treatment for those infected and provide protection for those at risk for exposure. The company believes that this and other antibody “cocktails” would prove effective, even as the coronavirus mutates and changes over time.

You may not have heard of Sorrento, but they’re not a bunch of fly-by-night quacks. The San Diego company has been around since 2009 and their research is in partnership with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Over the past few months, you’ve probably run across gloomy statements like: “We’ve never released a coronavirus vaccine for humans before.” Notice the careful wording.

The good news is that medical researchers developed several potential vaccines against SARS after the outbreak in 2003-2004. The bad news is those vaccines carried significant side effects, such as liver damage or lung diseases. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that the scientific community more or less was forced to give up the search for a vaccine once the level of concern about SARS declined. Researchers describe their funding drying up; not many institutions or donors were interested in financing research into a disease that hadn’t killed anyone in a decade.

Researchers also developed potential vaccines for another coronavirus MERS — Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — that worked in monkeys and is just getting to human trials this year. MERS is another viral outbreak that hit hard at first, and then cases became rarer and rarer, making the need for a vaccine less pressing.

Because most coronaviruses are not deadly and generate symptoms on par with the common cold, there’s been less incentive to put lots of research into developing vaccines for them. With this unfolding pandemic, medical researchers have enormous incentive and unprecedented resources to figure out how to stop SARS-CoV-2, and there are promising developments on a variety of fronts, researching potential treatments and vaccines.

The “we’ve never released a vaccine to stop a coronavirus before” line can make it sound like coronaviruses are unstoppable microscopic Terminators, effortlessly cutting through the body’s defenses. But human bodies’ immune systems kill coronaviruses all the time. Our experience with the number of people who recover from SARS-CoV-2 with mild symptoms demonstrates that some human bodies’ immune systems can kill this coronavirus. We just have to figure out a way to make sure everybody’s immune system has the ability to make short work of these dastardly little invaders.

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