As new vaccine breakthrough research continues, Virginia Tech and UVA virologists develop low-cost, potentially broadly protective COVID-19 vaccine through innovative vaccine production platform
With public health officials and policymakers continuing to focus on making COVID-19 vaccines widely available and improving public vaccination rates, it may be easy to forget that COVID-19 vaccine development is still ongoing. Existing vaccines are being revised and updated as mutations occur in the genome of SARS-CoV-2, and new vaccine breakthrough development methods continue to be researched.
Several important breakthroughs in technological advancement mark the unprecedented focus on infectious disease research and vaccine development. These include mRNA-based vaccines and the use of CRISPR technology in diagnostic testing.
One very recent breakthrough is a vaccine development method that may provide a way to produce low-cost, efficacious vaccines that can be developed in weeks. Researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) and the University of Virginia (UVA) have developed a new COVID-19 vaccine that has proven successful in animal testing.
This vaccine method involves using DNA that produces viral proteins. Instead of using this DNA to produce the viral proteins in humans, however, the DNA is replicated in bacteria which are then killed to recover the proteins. The proteins will then be injected into individuals to stimulate immunity.
New UVA-Developed Vaccine May Stimulate SARS-CoV-2 Immune Response
Led by UVA Health’s Steven L. Zeichner, MD, PhD, and Virginia Tech’s Xiang-Jin Meng, MD, this vaccine development method offers several promising benefits that are not available with existing authorized COVID-19 vaccines.
One of the most important approaches that Zeichner and Meng’s vaccine uses is that it stimulates an immune response against the “viral fusion peptide,” a part of SARS-CoV-2 that is essentially universal in coronaviruses. This would allow the vaccine to not only be effective against emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2, but potentially even against other types of coronaviruses.
“With the emergence of various SARS-CoV-2 variants, a vaccine targeting a conserved region of all coronaviruses, such as the fusion peptide, may potentially lead to a broadly protective candidate vaccine,” Meng said in a related release. “Such a vaccine, if successful, would be of significant value against variant virus strains.”
COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacturing Considerations
The innovative vaccine development method discovered by Zeichner and Meng allows for low-cost manufacturing of this vaccine, potentially reducing the cost to as low as $1 per dose. The method is more easily integrated into pre-pandemic manufacturing processes and, according to the developers, provides a vaccine that is more stable than the mRNA or DNA-based COVID-19 vaccines currently in use. Moreover, this new method may also allow for an astoundingly fast development time, providing a vaccine development time as short as two weeks.
“Killed whole-cell vaccines are currently in widespread use to protect against deadly diseases like cholera and pertussis. Factories in many low-to-middle-income countries around the world are making hundreds of millions of doses of those vaccines per year now, for a $1 per dose or less,” Zeichner said in a recent statement. “Our new platform offers a new route to rapidly produce vaccines at very low cost, that can be manufactured in existing facilities around the world, which should be particularly helpful for pandemic response.”
Human Trial Outcomes of Virginia Tech COVID-19 Vaccine Not Yet Known
While this new vaccine development platform has shown success in animal models, it remains to be seen how it will perform in human trials. Early indicators, however, seem to be promising that this may result in a new vaccine that could be available in 2021.
Clinical laboratories are already playing an important role as COVID-19 vaccine use becomes more widespread; some laboratories are shifting offerings to emphasize antibody testing that may help to measure vaccine effectiveness. As new technology develops in this area and leads to breakthroughs, clinical laboratory leaders may want to reassess their strategic planning.
—By Caleb Williams, Editor, STAT Intelligence Briefings