By Herald on January 15, 2021.
The phenomenal science behind the new Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines highlights the importance of funding first-rate research, and speaks to what can be achieved when science, industry and government all work together with co-ordinated effort to confront a fundamental problem, says University of Lethbridge Canada 150 Research Chair for Biophysics Borries Demeler.
“The U.S. government has taken a huge amount of risk by financing the entire workflow in parallel for (Moderna),” explains Demeler, as an example.
“To ramp up your production so you can produce a whole lot of vaccines if you don’t even know if they are going to be safe and effective. But if you do this at the very beginning without concern for this (financial) risk, and then go through regular clinical trials you have saved a lot of time. By the time the clinical trials conclude, you already have the vaccine ready to go.”
The success of the vaccines, which have a 95 per cent efficacy rate, is also a strong testament to 30 years of dedicated genetic research, particularly in the area of Messenger RNA (mRNA) drugs, says Demeler.
“This has been an investment that has paid off in a very critical time,” he states. “So what this really means is it is very important we fund research in a continuous and systematic way.”
Trushar Patel, a biochemist at the University of Lethbridge with knowledge of these types of drugs, concurs.
“They have been trying different messenger RNA as drug candidates, but the results we see after phase one, two and three (clinical) trials are the ones within the pool of RNA that these are the leading candidates,” he says.
“These ones work really well — about 95 or 96 per cent effective — and they are safe.”
Patel is awed by the vast collective scientific effort which ensured these vaccines could come out so quickly.
“This is the first time all the global scientists came together, and started working in co-ordination with each other,” he says. “This was a big change that has not happened in the past. People do work together, but this is the first time they worked together on an astronomical level where everybody shared the data, their regional expertise, their knowledge, and they worked day and night. That’s why we have a vaccine coming out quickly.”
Demeler says this is also the first time mRNA drugs, considered amongst the most advanced technology within the field of gene therapy, have been adapted for such broad use.
“There is a very long history of research on this which goes into being able to make these kinds of vaccines,” he emphasizes. “An important point we need to make is that this general class of drugs that are being used here, which are termed gene therapy drugs, that is relatively new in terms of FDA approval. They have only come in the last five to ten years, but they have been recognized as a really major market for us now. You have literally hundreds of (pharmaceutical) start-ups right now that are based on the same principle.”
Demeler says the way the vaccine works is scientists have created a copy of the same type of spike protein, (well-known now from media images of COVID-19), the virus uses to attach itself to healthy cells, and have created an mRNA drug which codes for this shape, which, once put into the bloodstream, activates the body’s defences against this particular shape of protein. Essentially teaching the body to “see” the invader to recognize the shape of the COVID invader — so when the real deal comes along the body already knows what it is, and can activate its own aggressive internal defences to destroy it.
“The idea is let’s make a lot of (non-harmful) spike protein and inject it into a person,” Demeler confirms, “and let the memory cells figure out what this unusual spike protein looks like so that when the body gets infected by a real virus, it can see it, remember it, and neutralize it immediately.”
Not only is the vaccine safe, in terms of simply activating the body’s own internal defenses against the virus, says Patel, it also has had very low incidents of allergic reaction as it has been administered to the public.
Patel says he is only aware of about 10 cases worldwide where an individual receiving the vaccine had an allergic reaction to it while thousands more individuals have experienced no negative effects whatsoever.
“We are too often highlighting those (few) cases out of hundreds of thousands of cases,” he says. “We really have to weigh these risk versus benefit ratios. The benefits outweigh the risks by an astronomical amount.”
“The efficacy of these drugs is really a godsend,” he states. “The fact we are that effective with this particular therapy does not only necessarily have to do with this (genetic drug) technology, although it is clearly related to it; it also has something to do with the way the virus acts. There may be other viruses that could not be treated the same way that are not so effective as they have been against COVID. So we are lucky in that respect that they work so well.”
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