Can Vaccines Win the Race Against the Novel Coronavirus?

Michael Wang, MD., Ph.D., member of AFCR Scientific Advisory Board

The U.S. death toll has passed the 100,000 mark this week, but effective anti-viral drugs are still not available for the treatment of COVID-19. Rather, many people have been putting their hope on the development of vaccines as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “Ultimately, the showstopper will obviously be a vaccine.”

The race against the coronavirus is on, and the expectation of a quick victory by vaccine is high. More than 130 novel coronavirus vaccine candidates are in global pipelines, including projects already backed by the U.S. government with over $1 billion worth of investment aimed to expedite development. However, a winning vaccine is not guaranteed, as the virus which causes COVID-19 has been found to be quite a moving target.

A recent study carried out by researchers at Duke University found that the novel coronavirus has been constantly changing the structure of its spike protein, which is widely used as a major target to develop vaccines. If a vital part of the spike protein changes, it will reduce the protective power of human antibodies produced by a specific vaccination. This is because the antibodies can’t effectively bind to their targets on the coronavirus surface. As a result, they won’t be able to neutralize the virus efficiently. This is one of the ways this virus sneaks away from attacks mounted by humans’ vaccine-stimulated immune system.

What worries researchers is that the coronavirus is moving right on that path now.

The study identified the Spike D614G mutation on the virus as causing changes on the viral target that most vaccines are aiming at and making the virus more contagious than the original one from Asia. The Spike D614G virus strain actually began in Europe in early February, then it gradually spread to the U.S. and is becoming a dominant type of virus here now. The concern about it is vaccines in the pipeline that target the earlier version of spike proteins might not be effective against the mutation-harboring strain and won’t be able to protect the people who will take them.

The concern alerted by this study is real, but it may not be realized as more research data needs be collected and analyzed before the final impact of the Spike D614G mutation can be fully evaluated. To quickly respond to the challenge posed by the spike protein mutation, scientists have laid out plans to run faster than the virus. For example, they could do design modifications on the vaccines already in the pipeline so as to offer protections against both old and new forms of virus strains. They can also design vaccines that won’t be dependent heavily on stable spike proteins.

There is no easy way to win the race against the novel coronavirus. The fight against COVID-19 will be a long and bumpy journey. Until effective drugs and vaccines are available, let’s guard our health by ourselves through following best practices and guidelines for personal protection: Wear face masks in working places and public areas, keep six feet apart from other people around you and wash hands frequently.