How plants could speed up vaccine manufacture to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic
At the start of April 2020, the global number of confirmed COVID-19 cases was rapidly approaching 1.5 million; the death toll: over 80,000. And these numbers will likely have changed substantially since the publication of this article. A vaccine is urgently needed. Pharma companies are scrambling into action with vaccine candidates and early trials, but drug development will take time. Some companies, however, are taking a different approach by introducing technologies that could help with research or manufacturing. As just one example, iBio is hoping its technology can help accelerate manufacturing and scale up for a potential vaccine. The company is developing a new vaccine for COVID-19 and has partnered with Beijing CC-Pharming to test the vaccine in China. The vaccine will be produced using iBio’s FastPharming system – a manufacturing technology that uses plants for rapid scale-up. We speak with Robert Erwin (President) and Sylvain Marcel (Vice President of Protein Expression Sciences) from iBio to find out more.
What are the challenges when it comes to developing a vaccine for a new virus, such as SARS-CoV-2?
There are challenges to developing any safe and effective vaccine, but even more so once an outbreak has already begun. First, a scientific team must determine which and how many targets to focus on to create vaccine candidates that will produce a protective immune response. Just producing an immune response is relatively easy, but producing an immune response that is protective and durable is not. In addition, the vaccine candidate must not produce a harmful immune response that might cause unwanted side-effects, or potentially even make a person more susceptible to viral infection – an effect referred to as “antibody-dependent enhancement.” This was a serious problem in past attempts to develop a safe and effective vaccine against Dengue fever.
We felt a responsibility to take a proactive role in the response to SARS-CoV-2, especially as our FastPharming facility was purpose-built for just this kind of scenario. We’ve made our advanced manufacturing systems available as a CDMO, while at the same time developing our own proprietary vaccine candidates.
Not every company has the appropriate enabling technologies and capabilities, but there are definitely roles for big pharma companies to play in this response. This can be by directly supporting the efforts of companies pursuing vaccines and therapeutics for SARS-CoV-2, or simply ensuring that there are no critical interruptions in the supply chains of any necessary medicines.
One thing that this pandemic has absolutely made clear, however, is that there is a crucial need for governments to proactively provide funding to ensure that we develop robust, sustainable response capabilities so that we are collectively better prepared to respond to future pandemics.
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