In an online event hosted by Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, leaders of the United States’ crash effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine said on June 5 that success will depend on continued cooperation with their scientific colleagues abroad.
Responding to a question from Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Tom Lynch about whether President Donald Trump’s threat to defund the World Health Organization would hurt the vaccine effort, Dr. John Mascola, director of the federal Vaccine Research Center, said from his Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters that international cooperation is continuing “as usual.”
“The World Health Organization remains intimately involved … and it’s going to be absolutely critical for the U.S. effort to be linked and coordinated with the international effort to the WHO,” he said.
Lynch moderated a discussion with Mascola and former Hutch President and Director Dr. Larry Corey, who will head operations based at the Seattle research institute to carry out massive clinical trials, involving 30,000 volunteers each, on at least five vaccine candidates starting as early as this summer.
The hourlong discussion covered a wide range of topics about the prospects for a COVID-19 vaccine, the first of which might be available by year-end. Corey and Mascola are working under the direction of Dr. Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Corey emphasized the global scope of the clinical trial effort, which will take advantage of the international network of vaccine testing sites that were set up — including the Hutch-headquartered HIV Vaccine Trials Network — to carry out trials of potential HIV vaccines.
“Despite what is happening on the outside with the U.S. government and the WHO, we are fish who swim deep underneath those waters and view that what we are doing is a global program.,” said Corey, an acclaimed virologist who has worked on HIV drugs and vaccines with Fauci since the 1980s.
“We are people of the globe, and our plans are to be able to extrapolate all the data that we have in the United States internationally,” Corey said. “And, in some areas we may get more data internationally … which we can extrapolate back to the United States.”
Corey said that the unprecedented effort to develop a vaccine within a year will benefit from the virology, statistical modeling and computational biology expertise housed within HVTN, as well as its vast network of testing sites set up in South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. “We are standing on 20 years of infrastructure that we’ve built,” Corey said.
Mascola explained that the NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center has not only worked on immunizations for HIV but also influenza, Ebola and COVID-19 predecessors, SARS and MERS. The work on those two, part of an “emerging pathogens” program, was critical to the speed with which NIAID was able respond.
“It all started in January. … Vaccinologists saw that it was a coronavirus, saw that it was related to SARS, and began to do work on it,” Mascola said.
He helped to develop there a type of vaccine that carries genetic code in the form of DNA’s cousin, RNA, into the body where immune cells take it up. Those cells start producing the characteristic spike protein found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the body in turn produces antibodies against it. This type of vaccine, which has never been licensed to prevent any diseases, has an advantage in that it can be quickly developed and formulated. The first U.S. company to begin clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses this approach.
When moderator Lynch asked Corey and Mascola to look ahead to December 2021 — 18-months from now — both said that they were cautiously optimistic that both a vaccine and therapeutics against COVID-19 might be available.
“I think the only way out of the epidemic is through science,” Corey said. “And I think we are beginning to see what the scientific community and scientific establishment can actually do in a rapid period of time.”
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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