LIFE | Animal research is fast-tracking a COVID-19 vaccine

By Matthew R. Bailey

The speed with which coronavirus research has progressed is a tribute to the ingenuity of scientists, the potential of public-private partnerships and some unsung heroes: lab animals.

More than 125 potential vaccines are in development seven months after the world first learned of coronavirus. We can thank animal research.

Take the work at biotechnology company Inovio. Preclinical studies of its vaccine, designated INO-4800, revealed a strong immune response in mice and guinea pigs.

Researchers at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University in the United Kingdom teamed up with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to develop a vaccine called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19. It provoked an immune response in a trial involving rhesus monkeys.

ChAdOx1 is undergoing human trials that are yielding promising results. The vaccine produced antibodies and T-cells capable of fighting the virus in test subjects. Another trial, which will distribute ChAdOx1 to over30,000 participants, is set to begin in August. Researchers are aiming for a mass-producible vaccine that can generate antibodies with a single dose.

Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is teaming up with Johnson & Johnson on a vaccine called Ad26.COV2-S. Beth Israel validated its vaccine in a study involving 25 rhesus macaques, each of which received one of six variants of the vaccine and follow-up booster.

Researchers exposed the monkeys and a control group to the virus three weeks later. All vaccinated monkeys exhibited lower viral loads than the control group. In eight, tests detected no virus.

Animal research is helping answer a question that has worried scientists since COVID-19 appeared. If someone gets the disease, will they develop immunity? In another study, the Beth Israel researchers exposed nine monkeys to the virus. All recovered and developed antibodies. All monkeys enjoyed nearly full protection when re-exposed more than a month later.

The U.S. government is supporting these partnerships through “Operation Warp Speed,” an effort to get successful vaccines produced and distributed by 2021. The federal money will fund production facilities and the manufacture of vials and syringes while vaccines are in development, rather than waiting until final approval.

Europe is also home to several coronavirus vaccine candidates. BioNTech, a German company, teamed up with Pfizer to develop four candidates under their BNT-162 mRNA-based vaccine program, all of which showed strong efficacy in animal trials.

The two partners are working to produce millions of doses by the end of 2020 and more than 1 billion by the end of 2021.

Given the urgency of developing a vaccine, some people, including animal activists, have argued scientists should skip trials in animals and proceed directly to humans. But the Food and Drug Administration requires robust data showing a vaccine is safe before the agency will permit researchers to administer it to patients. That’s why the leading COVID-19 vaccines have undergone extensive animal testing and will go through additional research in animals to prove that they’re safe at the same time they’re going through clinical trials in humans.

As Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has noted, “There are diseases in which you vaccinate someone, they get infected with what you are trying to protect them with, and you actually enhance the infection. You can get a good feel for that in animal models.”

We need animal models to evaluate whether candidate vaccines deliver immunity — or unwittingly make the virus more infectious.

The scientific campaign to defeat the coronavirus begins with human ingenuity and humane animal research. And it will end with victory.

Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. This piece originally ran in the Buffalo News.

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