Two leading research scientists recently drew from extensive experience in the fields of immunology, vaccine development, infectious diseases and antibody detection and targeting to share the status of vaccines and therapeutic approaches to advance the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The discussion came during a virtual media briefing held by SciLine, a free service based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science that connects journalists with scientists, who provide credible information, context and research-based evidence to inform in-depth and deadline news coverage.
The “COVID-19: Vaccines and Therapeutics” media briefing, held on June 9 and moderated by Rick Weiss, director of SciLine, featured Dr. John Mascola, the director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the National Institutes of Health, and Amy Jenkins, program manager within the Biological Technologies Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a U.S. Department of Defense agency known for rapid scientific and technological advances.
Mascola, a specialist in vaccine research, and Jenkins, an authority on the capacity of antibodies to fight SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, walked through scientific advances that have expanded knowledge about the structure and vulnerabilities of the virus and accelerated timelines for the development of effective and safe vaccines and therapeutic treatments.
The early availability of a genetic sequence of the virus proved pivotal to enabling vaccine development, said Mascola, adding that two months after the virus was first identified, research on various types of vaccines accelerated and moved into clinical trials.
Mascola said early phase three trials will begin over the summer and the effectiveness of a vaccine could be known by year’s end. Meanwhile, parallel advances are being taken to accelerate manufacturing processes to ensure that effective vaccines can be produced rapidly.
At the same time phase three trials of several types of vaccines move forward, “Then in parallel, there is a very strong government effort in this country and in various places in the world to scale up and manufacture vaccines so there is no gap between … information about whether the vaccine works and availability of a vaccine,” Mascola added.
Asked “How likely it is that we will not get a good, safe vaccine by early 2021?,” Mascola responded with optimism.“I think the tougher part of this question is will we get there this year? I can’t promise one way or the other. But if we’re a bit fortunate and they work then early 2021 is not an unrealistic goal.”
Fielding a question about the effectiveness and duration of emerging antibody therapies for COVID-19 patients, Jenkins described how DARPA researchers have sped up the task of identifying the most effective human antibodies and held early stage trials to determine if an injection of antibodies will provide patients “a protective concentration of antibodies.”
“What we want to do is go into that plasma or that blood, find the best antibodies–because not all of them are great–find the ones that are really good ones and then manufacture them in large bioreactors off somewhere else and give them back to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.”
Asked about the ability of antibodies to protect people and the length of such protection, Jenkins said the duration of treatments is not yet fully established, though researchers are working to develop antibodies that may be able to protect COVID-19 patients for up to three months.
Jenkins was careful to describe the differences between vaccines and antibody treatment, noting that the latter is immediately protective once administered by injection or intravenous therapy, while a vaccine is more long-term. “We really do see these as complementary technologies where you can use these antibodies to provide immediate immunity or to treat critically-ill patients,” she said.
The briefing was SciLine’s sixth in-depth session providing journalists scientific findings in areas vital to battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers focused on topics such as health disparities among vulnerable populations; immunity and contact tracing; infection, spread and testing; and social isolation, mental health and COVID-19.
The series opened with “Covering COVID-19,” a session led by seasoned science and health journalists who provided journalists with little science writing experience advice on basic coverage practices such as connecting informed sources and advice on how best to avoid misinformation by confirming incoming information and using real-life examples.
“Our efforts through media briefings like this one and the other services that we provide,” Weiss told reporters at a recent SciLine briefing, “are all geared toward getting you in touch with scientists or in touch with validated and credible scientific information to help you get those facts into your stories.”
[Associated image: REDPIXEL/Adobe Stock]