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Science versus the virus

  • Published at 05:20 pm May 21st, 2020
coronavirus the test

Science has shown us that we can be optimistic about the future

From among the relentless chatter of millions of voices regarding the coronavirus pandemic, all the miracle cures occupying newspaper headlines, from all of those “thousands a day” non-peer reviewed pre-print manuscripts, if I have to scoop out some real deal good news from last week, I’ll talk about the development of a new transgenic mouse model with human ACE receptor, I’ll talk about Oxford University Jenner institutes’ phase 1 study of the adenovirus vector vaccine, the China Military research institute-funded CanSio Bio developed virus vector vaccine’s phase 2 trial, and Moderna/NIAID’s mRNA vaccine trial entering phase 2 last week. 

For vaccine and drug safety research, we need mouse models. So far, a mouse model was not available because a mouse does not have the ACE2 receptor enzyme through which virus enters the human body. Because of this, so far, Rhesus monkeys and African brown monkeys were the only available animal models. 

These days, using primates for research is extremely expensive, limited, and bureaucratically cumbersome. Plus, there are very few primate research facilities which also have a BSL3 or 4 lab. 

So now, when Chinese scientists have developed a transgenic mouse model, animal research on Covid-19 will be move forward at a significantly faster pace. Suddenly, a floodgate will open up. 

We will be seeing new drug development research in massive quantities and at a fast rate. And this is another example of how science moves -- step by step, slow, painstaking, inch-by-inch progression. 

You try a drug from your dream and patients start getting better -- that’s not how science works.  

Breaking new ground

Each of the three new vaccines is revolutionary in the fields of vaccine science. The Second World War was the most catastrophic event of the last century. Yet, WWII was the sentinel event that propelled forward our science and technology by lightyears into a digital century of computers, satellites, supersonic aviation, and antibiotics. 

With over 5 million infected and about 350,000 dead so far, Covid-19 has totally humiliated and humbled the complacent arrogance of our 21st century civilization. 

Attacked out of the blue by this stranger virus, totally caught off guard and seriously hurt by this virus, civilization recoiled initially and then it hit back at this powerful but invisible enemy with a vengeance. 

The last few months were bittersweet for science watchers. With constant and quick pilling up of dead bodies in the backdrop, every observer with an inquisitive mind had a courtside view of the amazing resistance our science is staging against the virus  and launching a spectacular fight back.

Like the way WWII leaped forward science and technology, this CoVid-19 pandemic has brought forth a revolution in medical science. The blitzkrieg speed at which the warrior generals of science are regaining grounds lost against this virus is dizzying. 

At breakneck speed

A new disease was noticed in Wuhan China on December 31, 2019. Scientists at the lab of Dr Shi of Wuhan institute of Virology cancelled their vacations and worked in the lab 24/7 throughout New Year’s Eve and the entire first week of January, trying to identify the culprit. 

They first cultured a virus which they could tell was a coronavirus. But the virus did not match with any virus in the metagenomic virus database, meaning it was a new kind of virus. 

So they resorted to doing the genetic sequencing. And they succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of the first virus they isolated. It was January 11. Over the next few days, this group of scientists in China deposited several more generic sequences in the globally-shared database. 

Around the same time, Dr Christian Drosten, a top German virologist, heard about the new virus from one of his students who heard it in the news. He also ran back to the lab, cutting short his New Year’s holiday. 

He went to work right away. He knew the responsibility of developing a test kit to diagnose the virus was on his shoulders. Because he was the one who had developed test kits for previous novel viruses like SARS-1, MERS, and Zika virus. 

Samples were obtained from the first suspected patient on December 31. By January 10, the virus was isolated, identified to be a new virus, full genome sequenced. And Dr Drosten developed the first kit on January 16. 

He shared the RT-PCR primer design/methodology with the WHO. The WHO, in turn, shared info with the rest of the world. Almost simultaneously, two other groups of scientists -- one from Wuhan Institute of Virology in collaboration with University of Sydney and the other group at China CDC in collaboration with the University of Hong Kong -- developed two other RT-PCR testing methods. 

By January 17, the whole world knew how to diagnose it. Starting January 18, private companies associated with the German institute and WHO started mass producing RT-PCR test kits, which the WHO shipped to the rest of the world. 

The ridiculous speed of the above timeline was unthinkable even last year. This virus just somehow injected a boost to our medical science. Just to give a timeline perspective -- when the first SARS outbreak happened in 2002, it took six months to develop the first test kit! 

Going back to January 11, Wuhan virology institute’s scientists deposited the genome sequence. On January 13, scientists of NIH/NIAID in Maryland and biotech vaccine company Moderna identified mRNA-1273 a part of the RNA of the new virus. 

This high tech and revolutionary new virus technology will design a vaccine containing part of this novel coronavirus RNA, make the human body produce virus protein and, in turn, help the immune system develop immunity against the virus. 

On March 16, the first vaccine shot was given to a phase 1 volunteer. This mRNA vaccine is a revolutionary new vaccine technology which has never need used before. 

As of May 7, this Moderna mRNA vaccine entered phase 2. The whole supersonic vaccine project was funded by an organization Called CEPI -- coalition of epidemic preparedness innovation. 

CEPI was established in 2017, keeping such a pandemic in mind. CEPI has the knowhow and funds ready to be released for starting vaccine efforts from day one of a new epidemic. 

In addition to Moderna/NIAID vaccine efforts, CEPI also funded Oxford University Jenner Institute’s  ChAdOx1 vector vaccine. The Jenner Institute started working on ChAdOx1 on January 20. 

Similar to Moderna/NIAID’s mRNA vaccine, Jenner institute’s  ChAdOx1 virus vector vaccine is also a totally new technology which has never been used before. 

Although standard timeline requirement of a vaccine development is about 18 month and there always is uncertainty about a successful vaccine, I am uncharacteristically optimistic about a limited supply of vaccine much earlier, possibly by the fall of this year. 

I am more optimistic about Oxford’s ChAdOx1. I think ChAdOx1 will be the first one, to be followed by either Moderna/NIAID’s mRNA-1273 or CanSio biologic’s Ad5-nCov vaccine. 

And as I finish this note, I reiterate the fact that, in this war between science and the virus,  I am certain the virus eventually has no chance. 

Dr Rumi Ahmed Khan is a USA-based specialist physician.