Over the past month, I have repeatedly mentioned that our best hope, and perhaps the only way out of this pandemic, is to create a safe and effective vaccine. Only then can the world return to normal.
And, in fact, a few weeks ago, just before the lockdown started, I was filming a special BBC Horizon documentary on this subject.
We were fortunate to be invited to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, West London, to meet a team from Imperial College, one of many groups around the world working to find a jab who could protect the people of Covid-19.
What is potentially so exciting in the imperial approach is that if all goes well – and it is a big deal if – the team might be able to produce up to five million doses of here the end of this year. This will be enough to protect the most vulnerable from this second potential wave of infections that are being talked about and feared.
team from Imperial College, one of many groups around the world working to find a jab that could protect the people of Covid-19
Professor Robin Shattock, the man in charge of research at Imperial Oil, has been working on vaccines for decades. When he first heard of the outbreak of a new virus in China, he assumed that, like previous epidemics, he would either be contained or suffocated. “We have already seen a number of small outbreaks and we thought it could be one,” he said, “although we have always been aware in the scientific community that a pandemic could very well happen. “
However, it soon became apparent that this outbreak was not going to be stopped. A turning point for Professor Shattock and his team was the publication by Chinese scientists on January 10 of the genome of the virus – its genetic blueprint.
It was like publishing the plan necessary to create a complete virus from scratch. It was an extremely important step that galvanized researchers around the world. From late January, thanks to information shared by Chinese scientists, Professor Shattock’s team was able to create a prototype in a matter of weeks.
The way a virus replicates is to get inside your cells and then hijack their machines to make many copies of itself.
It then bursts out of the cell and searches for other cells to infect. The immune system stops this by attacking viruses before they enter your cells, or by killing infected cells before the viruses spread.
But to do this, your immune system must first recognize that a dangerous new virus is at large. And when it does, it must be ready to attack it vigorously. This is where a vaccine comes in.
The team, which met at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, may be able to produce up to five million doses of the vaccine
Vaccines traditionally include a killed or weakened strain of the virus you want to immunize against – or a fragment of it. This deceives the body’s immune system into believing it is under attack, when it only responds to a simulated attack.
If the body is attacked for real, the immune system will already be ready to defend it. I say “traditionally” because the approach developed by Professor Shattock and others is very different. Instead of using fragments of the virus as the basis for their vaccine, they use short portions of genetic material that are grown inside a laboratory and are completely artificial.
Once injected, it should be able to elicit a strong immune response without the risk of infection. These so-called RNA vaccines are so new that none have yet been approved for medical use. The short sections of the genetic code for the team’s experimental vaccine are the ones the virus uses to create club-shaped spikes on its surface.
The imperial team first injected it into mice. So, what happened? “We saw a massive antibody response within two weeks of the injection,” said Professor Shattock. “It was actually surprising. We thought we would get a good answer, but not as big or as quickly. “
I want to emphasize how remarkable this is. They managed to compress what would normally take about three years – create a vaccine and test it on mice – in just three weeks.
Having shown that the vaccine could produce an immune response to the coronavirus in mice, the next step was to test it on monkeys, which are much more closely related to us than mice. Unlike mice, they are also vulnerable to Covid-19.
Despite persistent calls from ministers to stay home and maintain social distance, people still gathered in London’s Greenwich Park, pictured on Saturday
Two weeks ago, a group of monkeys received a vaccine against the new vaccine, and in a few weeks, these monkeys will be exposed to the coronavirus.
Scientists will learn from this if the vaccine has protected them. If it seems safe and effective in monkeys, the next step will be a little trial in humans.
The imperial approach is just one of many currently underway around the world.
Another British team working hard at developing a vaccine is based at the Oxford Vaccine Center. Last week, he began searching for more than 500 human volunteers to participate in a trial.
“We are in a race but not against each other,” says Professor Shattock. “We are in a race against the virus. And it’s a race that we absolutely have to win. “
- Coronavirus: A Horizon Special, BBC2, Thursday, 9 p.m.
My sons shook the virus – but they still don’t feel anything
Last week, I wrote that two of my sons – Jack, 27, and Daniel, 25 – both went down with Covid-19. They had coughs, fever, muscle pain and had lost their sense of smell.
I’m happy to say that they have now recovered, apart from the smell, which only comes back slowly.
Odor and taste loss seems surprisingly common in people with the virus. In Germany, more than two-thirds of infected patients have reported loss of odor.
Dan Mosley, who fell down with the virus last month, smells sauerkraut to test his senses
It seems that the virus is causing inflammation of your olfactory nerves which give you your sense of smell.
Once the virus is defeated, the odor normally returns within a few days or perhaps a few weeks. Experts warn that people who see their doctor for the problem, called anosmia, often receive a steroid to reduce inflammation.
However, if they have the virus, it could be dangerous because steroids can suppress your immune system and worsen an infection.