As the world grapples with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), scientists race to develop treatments and vaccines to combat the viral infection. Though many ongoing trials show promise in fighting the novel coronavirus, Italian researchers claim they have developed a vaccine that can neutralize severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in animal cells.

The team from Takis Biotech, a biotechnology company based in Rome, Italy, has carried out tests at the Lazzaro Spallanzani Hospital in Rome, which specializes in infectious diseases. The results of this initial study in mice were extremely positive. After a single dose, the five candidate DNA-based vaccines were able to induce a strong antibody response against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in just 14 days.

Binding of the coronavirus spike protein(red) to an ACE2 receptor (blue) on a human cell leads to the penetration of the virus in the cell, as depicted in the background. Illustration Credit: Juan Gaertner / Shutterstock

Binding of the coronavirus spike protein(red) to an ACE2 receptor (blue) on a human cell leads to the penetration of the virus in the cell, as depicted in the background. Illustration Credit: Juan Gaertner / Shutterstock

A step closer

The pressure is on for most pharmaceutical companies to develop a coronavirus vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Though there are many promising candidates, landing a potent and effective one entails hard work.

However, in the world-first breakthrough, the scientists developed the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate by growing antibodies in mice. This is the first time scientists found a way to neutralize and  SARS-CoV-2. The biotech company says it is set to start human trials by June.

“According to Spallanzani Hospital, as far as we know, we are the first in the world so far to have demonstrated neutralization of the coronavirus by a vaccine. We expect this to happen in humans too,” Luigi Aurisicchio, CEO of Takis Biotech, said in a statement.

The tests conducted by the Italian scientists show that the vaccine may potentially work against the SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Further, the company is exploring other state-of-the-art platforms with the drug company, LineaRx, in an attempt to develop the vaccine further.

To succeed in its venture, the biotech company requires the support of not only the Italian government but also international institutions and partners who may want to help accelerate the process.

Aurisicchio emphasized that this is not a competition or race, and if companies and scientists joined hands, the world could win against the deadly virus.

Will there be a vaccine by the end of the year?

The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said it might take as long as one year and a half before the world will have a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

The statement came after Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company, claims it could have a vaccine ready for emergency use by September. However, Fauci said the most realistic date would be by January. Typically, vaccines may take about five to 15 years before it reaches the market, but by fast-tracking the process, it may be shorter.

Currently, the record for developing a vaccine is four years, while common vaccines for chickenpox and influenza took 28 years to develop. The vaccine for measles came at an accelerated rate of four years. Still, the coronavirus vaccine is a long way to go, considering the needed processes for its approval for human use.

Some say that the usual obstacles in vaccine development have been removed amid the coronavirus pandemic, hence, making it faster to have a working vaccine by about early next year. Take, for example, the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 wherein scientists were able to develop a vaccine against the virus in just five months.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said that intentionally infecting healthy volunteers with the virus may fast track studies of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. Though such studies may pose dangers to participants, these are needed in dire situations such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Challenge-studies, where vaccines, preventatives, and treatments are directly tested in informed volunteers, may help speed up the development and approval of the needed vaccines.

“They can be substantially faster to conduct than vaccine field trials, in part because far fewer participants need to be exposed to experimental vaccines to provide (preliminary) estimates of efficacy and safety. Such studies can be used to compare the efficacy of multiple vaccine candidates and thus select the most promising vaccines for larger studies,” the report reads.  

With more than 100 vaccine candidates today, the health agency looks into the feasibility and safety of doing challenge studies.