Is DNA The Answer To A COVID-19 Vaccine?
As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, researchers and scientists are frantically trying to find and develop a vaccine to help save millions of lives. The development cycle of a vaccine typically takes years. Keep reading to learn how researchers are approaching their quest to find a COVID-19 vaccine in such a short amount of time.
A Medical Breakthrough
Vaccine development is no simple matter. Typically, a vaccine can take years to develop before being released to the public. Despite being fast-tracked, the Ebola virus vaccine took researchers nearly five years to create. It’s quite rare that researchers can develop a fully workable vaccine within a short period of time.
Some viruses function differently, like the flu. Each year, the flu can mutate and appear slightly different, requiring a specific vaccine each season. The average time it takes to develop a vaccine for a familiar virus, such as influenza, is between four months to six months.
This is why researchers are more pressured than ever before to find a solution to the coronavirus. This disease is causing both health and economic devastation around the world. Once the coronavirus made its appearance on the world stage, scientists began implementing different research techniques to find a solution. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a rush for researchers across the world to defy typical vaccine timelines and push to find a solution in record times.
By the Spring of 2020, over eighty companies had started developing coronavirus vaccines. The difference between these vaccines and more traditional ones like the flu? Researchers are now taking a gene-based approach instead of the more traditional one used in the past.
Conventional vaccines have been around for many years and are quite commonplace. If you get a flu shot every year, then you’ve gotten what’s known as a conventional vaccine.
A conventional vaccine works in a specific manner. First, it’s injected into an individual’s body. This injection contains pieces of the specific virus. Your immune system then goes on alert and signals that the molecules in the virus pieces are threats. To combat this, the immune system creates antibodies. Antibodies can then work throughout the body to fight the foreign virus and neutralize it.
This initial injection is kind of like a dress rehearsal for the virus itself. Now that your body has built a response to the virus, it’s ready and prepared to protect your body from a future infection of the virus.
Gene-based vaccines function differently than conventional vaccines. In a gene-based vaccine, scientists use the information they gather from the virus’s genome to create a kind of map of selected antigens. This map is composed of DNA that holds specific genetic information instructions.
Researchers then can inject DNA into an individual’s cells. The cells respond by telling the body to make virus antigens. Since DNA naturally gives instructions to cells, the cells are familiar with responding to DNA as part of their most basic functions.
A virus functions similarly to the gene-based vaccine. A virus can’t reproduce its own cells, so it takes over existing ones and uses the cell’s capabilities to reproduce. Once the virus has used the cell to multiply, it then leaves the cell and infects more. This is how an infection spreads throughout the body.
Developing A Virus Vaccine
As you can imagine, developing a vaccine for a virus is not a simple matter. First, researchers must isolate the virus particle itself. Once that’s completed, two steps are taken. The first is to adapt it to a vaccine. From there, the virus is then weakened and killed. Pieces of it are then used as part of the vaccine.
The second part is to map the virus’s genetic sequence. Once that’s complete, the virus blueprint is embedded in DNA plasmid, RNA lipid, and an adenovirus.
Once both steps are complete, particles are then put into a solution. This is when the testing and trials can begin.
For safety purposes, researchers start with testing on lab cultures and on animals. If the vaccine proves too toxic, it’ll be stopped. Then it's back to the drawing board. However, if the vaccine shows it’s working within animals then the vaccine can move on to human trials.
Virus vaccines are first tested in small groups of people, usually around one hundred. If that proves both successful and safe, the testing moves to a few hundreds of people. By now, researchers have narrowed down the vaccine and the appropriate dosage. To determine if it’s effective on a widespread amount of people, they’ll begin testing in the tens of thousands.
After that entire process is successfully completed, the vaccine is ready for production. You might think the solution ends there, but it certainly doesn’t. Now the vaccine must be approved by government regulators, which can take time. Once approved, the drug needs to be mass manufactured and tested for quality control.
What This Means For COVID-19
Vaccines for viruses involve a complicated process, so it’s no wonder the world feels stressed to find a solution to the coronavirus pandemic. There’s good news, though; researchers don’t believe that SARS-COV-2 (coronavirus) mutates as quickly as a virus like influenza. This buys researchers some time in developing a vaccine that’ll hopefully be effective at protecting people for a significant stretch of time.