This has to be the moment’ to invest in coronavirus vaccines and
The last thing people will want to think about when this pandemic ends is the next one. It’s human nature to move on, to want to put coronaviruses, vaccines and disease surveillance behind us. But a growing chorus of researchers says now is the time to get ready for what is sure to come.
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Some have already begun preliminary efforts to develop antivirals and monoclonal antibodies to prevent serious disease, and vaccines that could stop a novel virus in its tracks.
“Either we invest now or we pay a lot more later,” said Wayne Koff, chief executive officer of the non-profit Human Vaccines Project.
Koff, along with Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, published an editorial Thursday in the prestigious journal Science, calling for a global effort to develop a universal vaccine against coronaviruses, the family that includes the virus causing COVID-19.
“We don’t know when the next one is going to come, the only thing we know is the next one is going to come,” Koff said. “Whether we have a year or whether we have a decade — given that unknown, we should be looking at this issue really seriously right now.”
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The world got lucky that the last major global pandemic, the 1918 flu, was more than a century ago.
In recent years, however, the pace of so-called zoonotic diseases jumping from animals to humans has sped up: Zika, Ebola, chikungunya and two previous coronaviruses — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) — have caused major outbreaks since 2003. Not to mention the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009.
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None of these has been as widespread as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but all have been lethal, with MERS killing one-third of its victims and Ebola roughly half.
And after each of these outbreaks initial enthusiasm for prevention was followed by loss of interest and a deep drop in funding.
That can’t be allowed to happen again, said Dr. James Crowe, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center and an immunologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, both in Nashville.
“How many times is it going to take until we start looking ahead?” Crowe asked rhetorically. “This has to be the moment, or else it’s never going to happen.”
An ounce of prevention
It’s tough to convince politicians to spend huge sums of money against an enemy that doesn’t yet exist, but Crowe said those investments would be insignificant compared to the current global pandemic’s $20 trillion price tag.
“If we were proactive instead of just responding to an outbreak, we could think differently and think about immunity to things that have not yet happened,” he said.
The trick will be figuring out how to to develop treatments and prevention tools for viruses that don’t yet exist.
Crowe has a few ideas.
For about $2 billion, Crowe said he and his colleagues could develop monoclonal antibodies that could protect against the 100 most likely human epidemics. The focus would be on “how much of the mat can you cover with your antibodies, rather than picking the virus du jour,” he said.
He envisions making 10,000 doses of antibodies designed to fight each of these 100 potential epidemics, and storing them for the day they might be needed. Further research would still be required to prove their effectiveness, but that number of doses would be enough for a trial and to create a “ring” of protection around the people first infected and those who come into contact with them.
If such antibodies or early vaccines had been ready in late 2019 when the first signs of SARS-CoV-2 began appearing in China, “we could have upscaled and probably cut off about six months of the pandemic,” Crowe said.
“It’s just moving the timeframe up by doing some of the hard work ahead of time,” he said. “It’s a very simple idea.”