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COVID-19 Vaccine Research

Illustration of Virus
Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses.

A return to normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic hinges on an effective vaccine.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Dr. Peter Gulick, an expert in infectious diseases in the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, about vaccine development. He says an early key is the detection of the genetic sequence of the virus, something that happened quickly in China.

DR. PETER GULICK: Once that (detection of the genetic sequence of the virus) happens, then they have to take it and then try to form a vaccine that's going to have the same component or some component of the virus that's going to be immunogenic. That's not going to change. And then what they do is they create a vaccine so that it will have this component in it so that when your immune system gets exposed to this, then it will make an antibody to it. The other part of the vaccine is what they call the adjuvant, and the adjuvant is very important because it is the other part of the vaccine that gets the immune system real revved up.

SCOTT POHL: What can you tell me about the typical procedure for testing a vaccine to see how effective it might be?

DR. GULICK: They try to do animal models and just to see what the potential toxicity could be, whether it can cause a severe allergic reaction or can overstimulate the immune system, different components like that. In this particular vaccine development, they're trying to skip steps to try to produce it in a quicker manner. They're actually going right to the human now to see exactly, is it toxic? If they give the vaccine, is it going to cause side effects, is it going to cause high fevers? Is it going to overstimulate the immune system that may make a person real sick? They have to kind of see if that happens. And then, if it looks like things are pretty tolerable there, then they have to see is it immunogenic, is it going to produce neutralizing antibodies?

POHL: With regard to the notion of expediting the process, we've heard the number 18 months thrown around, but it's also my understanding that the fastest this has ever happened before is something like four years. Do you think 18 months is realistic?

DR. GULICK: That's where we're going to see what the technology is and how quickly they can run through the trials. They're making a component to one of the structures of the virus to develop this vaccine, and now they've already got people that have been injected with the vaccine. What takes the longest is to see, the toxicity usually comes on within a few weeks or a month or so, maybe even less, but it's the long-term effect of the vaccine. Is it going to make antibodies, is it going to make a lot, and then are these antibodies going to last? That's what it takes. That's where it takes so long to go through.

They may actually shorten that period if they see that there's a lot of antibodies produced. If they see maybe the antibodies maintain a high level, they may just start vaccinating, and then just start monitoring patients once they're vaccinated to see how long the antibodies last.

POHL: We're hearing about how some are hopeful that antibodies can be taken from the blood plasma of people who have recovered from COVID-19 and using that in current patients. How optimistic should we be about that approach in the meantime?

DR. GULICK: There's two types of ways of giving somebody immunity, so to speak, to a virus. That could be the passive immunity or active immunity. Active immunity is the vaccine. Passive immunity is injecting the actual antibodies that have already been made to try to block those viruses from continuing to grow and replicate.  

An antibody can be there just to identify that you've been exposed to a virus, but it may not be neutralizing, may not do any function, but it may just show yes, you've seen the virus, you've made an antibody, that's it. The antibodies that are more effective and what really kill the virus is neutralizing antibodies, and those are the ones hopefully, that are majority of being produced. That's what's taken away from these patients and put in a machine to get plasma, and the plasma has these antibodies in it. Then what they do is they inject it into people with active infection. They have found that this has worked in several different trials. I haven't researched it extensively, but I know they've done it in China, they're doing it in the United States, and it's one of the ways that the FDA is looking at treating the COVID virus besides Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine. They're looking at these passive antibody infusions as well.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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