Alongside many other labs and researchers working to combat the coronavirus pandemic, UW researcher Adel Talaat is working on converting the lab’s experimental vaccine for chicken coronavirus into a viable vaccine for humans.
“We’ve been doing this work for the last three years trying to develop a vaccine against chicken coronavirus,” Talaat said.
Recently, the lab switched their focus to the human coronavirus, as some of the main features of the the chicken and human coronaviruses are the same.
Graduate student and member of the lab, Shaswath Sekar Chandrasekar, said the chicken coronavirus is a distant cousin of the current coronavirus.
“We developed a platform technology with which we can deliver our vaccines,” Chandrasekar said. “We’re trying to translate that for the current human coronavirus.”
In the DNA vaccine for chicken coronavirus, Chandrasekar said there are sequences specific to the chicken coronavirus which the lab swapped out and replaced with human coronavirus sequences.
Talaat said the lab wants to use the vaccine in a suitable animal model to see if there is a strong immune response and if the vaccine provides protection against the novel coronavirus.
Chandrasekar said the researchers developed a nanovaccine platform that can pack DNA into nanovesicles.
“The advantage of having these nanovesicles is that it decreases the availability of the DNA in the cell, so [the DNA] is easily taken up by the cell versus when you give it without a vesicle [the DNA] is just floating around [and] it is not taken up by the cell pretty well,” Chandrasekar said.
Another advantage is components of the nanovesicles can prime the immune system by itself, Chandrasekar added.
But, Talaat said the vaccine is at least one year to 16 months away from being viable. Chandrasekar explained there is a lot of regulatory approval the vaccine needs to go through before becoming usable for humans.
The lab began testing the human vaccine in mice last month, and Talaat said the next steps would be second testing in another nonhuman primate, such as monkeys. Chandrasekar added that the nonhuman primate testing would be followed by clinical trials in humans.
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However, the lab’s research has been affected by the Stay at Home order, as undergraduate students who were helping in the lab are no longer able to be present, Talaat said.
Talaat added that co-investigators are continuing to work as normal, but most of their workforce is working from home.
“[There is] less interaction between me and [the other lab members] which is not good for science. Science is dependent on people talking to each other, communicating with each other, [at] full capacity,” Talaat said.
This obstacle will potentially delay the progress of the research, Talaat said, but the lab is trying to take every step towards progress in whichever ways possible — such as focusing more on writing manuscripts and computer analysis.
The mode of delivery for the vaccine is something the lab is also focusing on during development, Talaat said.
According to Talaat, an injection could be problematic as it needs more intervention and many people dislike injections. Because of this, the lab is trying to test several alternative options such as a nasal vaccine similar to Flonase.
“We’re basically trying to develop an effective vaccine that can be given easily to a large number of people, because that’s what we need in a case of outbreak like what we have right now,” Talaat said.
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Talaat said the researchers are being mindful of cost while developing the vaccine, and are always trying to develop a vaccine that is inexpensive for consumers.
The cost of the vaccine usually comes when the technology is used on a larger scale — however, the real cost of this vaccine still needs to be tested, Talaat said.
“With the technology we’re using, we think it’s going to be very inexpensive, and we’ll be able to scale it up, so you can give it to [a] large number of people,” Talaat said.
Chandrasekar said, under the overarching coronavirus category, there are many different subclassifications such as alpha-beta and gamma.
For example, Chandrasekar said, common cold human coronaviruses that have been circulating for a long time do not cause severe symptoms in patients — rather, they cause flu-like symptoms which are easily cleared.
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Talaat also spoke about the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus. The new version of the coronavirus spreads quickly and results in a serious infection with the ability to quickly develop into a serious disease, Talaat said.
“It is a big problem for the high-risk group. As healthy individuals, it is on us to break the chain and prevent the transmission to these people,” Chandrasekar said.
Chandrasekar said the fatality rate associated with people over the age of 70 is high, and there many young people who are thought to be asymptomatic carriers. The asymptomatic carriers may not have any symptoms, but are capable of transmitting the virus to people of high risk if they do not quarantine themselves, Chandrasekar added.
“The best [thing] for us to do right now is to protect ourselves from getting the infection,” Talaat said. “I cannot stress enough the practices of good hygiene and social distancing. That’s really very important in order to stop this outbreak and go back to normal as soon as we can.”