Racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, using technologies both old and new

screenshot johnson johnson to start coronavirus vaccine human trials in september
Credit: Reuters/Andreas Gebert

The need to rapidly develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 comes at a time of explosion in basic scientific understanding, including in areas such as genomics and structural biology, that is supporting a new era in vaccine development. …

Vaccines for the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Ebola, and Zika did not follow a similar path. The SARS and Zika epidemics ended before vaccine development was complete, and federal funding agencies reallocated funds that had been committed to vaccine development, leaving manufacturers with financial losses and setting back other vaccine-development programs.

Multiple platforms are under development. Among those with the greatest potential for speed are DNA- and RNA-based platforms, followed by those for developing recombinant-subunit vaccines. RNA and DNA vaccines can be made quickly because they require no culture or fermentation, instead using synthetic processes. … There are no approved RNA vaccines to date, but RNA vaccines have entered clinical trials. …

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Use of next-generation sequencing and reverse genetics may also cut development time of more conventional vaccines during epidemics.

It’s far from certain that these new platforms will be scalable or that existing capacity can produce sufficient quantities of vaccine fast enough. It’s therefore critical that vaccines also be developed using tried-and-true methods, even if they may take longer to enter clinical trials or to result in large numbers of doses.

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