I have said a few times in the past month that our best hope, and perhaps the only way out of this pandemic, will be by creating a safe and effective vaccine. Only then can the world return to normal.
And in fact, just a few weeks ago, just before the closing started, I was filming a special BBC Horizon documentary watching this topic.
We were fortunate to be invited to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, West London, to meet a team from Imperial College, one of many groups around the world working to find a prick that people can protect against Covid-19.
What’s potentially exciting about the Imperial approach is that if all goes well – and that’s a big deal – the team could be able to produce up to five million doses of the vaccine by the end of this year. That’s enough to protect the more vulnerable from that much-discussed – and dreaded – potential second wave of infections.
Imperial College team, one of many groups around the world working to find a puncture that can protect people from Covid-19
Professor Robin Shattock, the man who leads the research at Imperial, has been working on vaccines for decades. When he first heard about the outbreak of a new virus in China, he assumed that, like previous outbreaks, it would be contained or disappear. “We’ve seen a number of minor outbreaks before and we thought this could be one,” he says, “although we’ve always been aware in the scientific community that a pandemic could arise.”
However, it soon became clear that this outbreak would not be stopped. A critical turning point for Prof Shattock and his team was the publication by Chinese scientists on January 10 of the genome of the virus – the genetic blueprint.
This was similar to publishing the blueprint needed to create a complete virus from scratch. It was a hugely important step that galvanized researchers around the world. At the end of January, with the information shared by the Chinese scientists, Prof Shattock’s team was able to prototype in just a few weeks.
The way a virus replicates is by crawling into your cells and then hijacking their machines to make lots of copies of themselves.
It then bursts out of the cell and searches for other cells to infect. The immune system prevents this by attacking the viruses before they enter your cells, or by killing the infected cells before the viruses can spread.
But to do that, your immune system must first recognize that a new, dangerous virus is free. And when it does, it should be ready to attack it vigorously. That’s where a vaccine comes in.
The team, which gathered at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, may be able to produce up to five million doses of the vaccine
Traditionally, vaccines have included a killed or attenuated strain of the virus you want to immunize against – or a fragment of that virus. This fools the body’s immune system into thinking it is under attack, while only responding to a fake attack.
If the body is really under attack, the immune system is already ready to defend it. I say ‘traditional’, because the approach developed by Prof Shattock and others is very different. Instead of using pieces of the virus as the basis for their vaccine, they use short pieces of genetic material that are grown in a lab and are completely artificial.
Once injected, it should be able to trigger a powerful immune response without the risk of an infection. These so-called RNA vaccines are so new that none have yet been approved for medical use. The short bits of genetic code in the team’s experimental vaccine are the ones that use the virus to create the club-shaped points on the surface.
The imperial team first injected into mice. So what happened? “We saw a massive antibody response within two weeks of the injection,” said Prof. Shattock. “That was actually surprising. We thought we would get a good response, but not as big or as fast. ‘
I want to emphasize how remarkable this is. They managed to compress what would normally take about three years – make a vaccine and test on mice – in just three weeks.
Now that we have shown that the vaccine can induce an immune response to the coronavirus in mice, the next step has been testing on monkeys, which are much more closely related to us than mice. Unlike mice, they are also vulnerable to Covid-19.
Despite persistent requests from ministers to stay at home and ensure social distance, people still flocked to London’s Greenwich Park, pictured, on Saturday
Two weeks ago, a group of monkeys received an injection of the new vaccine and in a few weeks these monkeys will be exposed to the corona virus.
From this, the scientists will learn whether the vaccine has protected them. If it seems safe and effective in monkeys, the next phase will be a small trial in humans.
The Imperial approach is just one of many currently being implemented around the world.
Another British team that is currently developing a vaccine is based at the Oxford Vaccine Center. Last week, more than 500 human volunteers were sought out to participate in a trial.
“We are in a race, but not against each other,” says Prof. Shattock. “We are in a race against the virus. And it is a race that we absolutely must win. ‘
- Coronavirus: A Horizon Special, BBC2, Thursday, 9pm.
My sons have shed the virus, but they still don’t smell anything
Last week I wrote that two of my sons – Jack, 27 and Daniel, 25 – had both come with Covid-19. They had a cough, fever, muscle pain and lost their sense of smell.
I am pleased to say that they have now recovered, apart from the sense of smell, which is slowly returning.
Loss of smell and taste seems to be surprisingly common in people with the virus. In Germany, more than two-thirds of infected patients reported odor loss.
Dan Mosley, who contracted the virus last month, smells sauerkraut to test his senses
It seems that the virus is causing inflammation in your olfactory nerves, which give you sense of smell.
Once the virus is defeated, the odor normally returns within a few days or possibly weeks. Experts warn that people who go to their doctor with their problem, called anosmia, are often given a steroid to reduce inflammation.
However, if they have the virus, it can be dangerous because steroids can suppress your immune system and make an infection much worse.