How Vaccine Platforms Can Prepare Us for Future Pandemics
This article was originally published in February 2021. It has since been updated by Willow Shah-Neville on April 19, 2023.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses of our defenses. Vaccine platforms will be powerful tools to react more quickly to future pandemics.
Various COVID-19 vaccines are available around the world to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, marking a historic moment for vaccine development due to the speed with which they are made. And with scientists believing such pandemics could occur more frequently in the 21st century, there is much to learn from our response to COVID-19.
According to the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, human activities such as illegal wildlife trade, industrial poultry production, and climate change increase the risk of zoonotic outbreaks — transmission of diseases from animals to humans. With more than five new infectious diseases that appear every year, there is always a threat of one of them becoming a pandemic. When that happens, vaccine platforms will be critical to pandemic preparedness.
Platform technology, a more popular term in computer science, refers to technologies that serve as the basis for the development of various processes, applications, and other technologies. Extending the definition to pharmaceuticals, a vaccine platform is any underlying technology — mechanism, delivery method, or cell line — that can be used to develop multiple vaccines. What are the benefits of investing in platform technology over standalone vaccines?
Speed is critical to slowing down the spread
COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna received emergency use approval from the FDA, and later EMA, within 11 months after China shared the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in January 2020. This makes it the fastest vaccine ever approved in history.
While it’s true that unprecedented amounts of funding were made available – with more than a hundred different vaccines in the pipeline at the time – and that pharmaceutical companies benefited from earlier research on the coronavirus, there’s more to the pace of development of these two vaccines. . . Both are built using messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, and are the first drugs approved to use this technology.
Other approved COVID-19 vaccines are based on adenoviral vector technology, as well as the more classic live attenuated and protein-based vaccines. The rapid development of mRNA and adenoviral vector vaccines, when compared to other COVID-19 vaccines, highlights a key benefit of the new vaccine platforms: speed.
For example, Moderna designed a COVID-19 vaccine in just two days. Likewise, German company BioNTech took just one day to design its vaccine. This is in stark contrast to conventional vaccines which generally take several months to years to design.
Having multiple vaccine platforms in the race to develop a vaccine also contributes to a faster pandemic response. Surveillance studies routinely identify zoonotic viruses that are likely to spread to humans. This ideal pool of candidates exists to validate developing vaccine platforms. Doing this will speed up development if any of these viruses do spread.
“The idea is that once the virus is selected, vaccines can be produced on multiple platforms and tested in phase I and phase II trials with some of the vaccines produced stored.” Florian Krammer, professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, notes in a scientific paper published in With.
“A well-prepared infrastructure capable of producing a vaccine 3–4 months after the outbreak will save many lives and will likely normalize the situation in many geographic areas now,” he added. While it could have prevented many deaths, the timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine remains impressive. How can pharmaceutical companies design vaccines so quickly? The answer lies in another key benefit of vaccine platforms: flexibility.
The vaccine platform is flexible
Both Moderna and BioNTech were working on mRNA vaccines for cancer and infectious diseases like influenza and Zika before the pandemic. Companies are leveraging these platforms developed for other vaccines to direct their COVID-19 vaccine efforts. They only need to replace the mRNA with the one relevant to the new coronavirus. Once injected, the cell’s machinery uses mRNA instructions to produce the spike protein of the new coronavirus, which elicits an immune response.
According to a reviews on Natural Ingredients, vaccine platforms will be able to adapt to new strains of circulating and newly emerging viruses. “A wider set of possibilities for pre-emptive and reactive vaccine design, as well as more rapid development and manufacturing options, will permanently change our ability to respond to rapidly emerging viruses,” suggest the authors.
Many of these vaccine platforms have shown great promise in providing immunity against other viruses such as Zika and Ebola. For example, COVID-19 vaccines from Oxford/AstraZeneca, as well as those from Johnson & Johnson and Chinese biotechnology CanSino, use chimpanzee adenoviral vectors. The Oxford platform has has previously been shown to be effective in animal models for Rift Valley Virus (RVF) and Zika virus. In addition, he managed to induce an immunogenic response including the Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever virus, Lassa virus, and Nipah virus.
Other companies are betting on multiple vaccine platforms at the same time to deal with the various emerging threats. aVaxziPen, a British biotech startup formerly Enesi Pharma, develops vaccines against various infectious diseases, including HPV, chikungunya, Zika, shigella, plague and anthrax.
“The vaccines we are working on come in all the major formats currently under development – live attenuated viruses, adenoviral vectors, protein subunits, etc.,” David Hipkiss, CEO of aVaxziPen, told me. “So far, we have shown promising results in proof-of-concept studies of all these formats and are advancing to test them in established preclinical models.”
The startup took on a different mRNA vaccine from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, opting instead to develop a solid-dose formulation, which could be used to vaccinate people without needles.
“Maintaining the integrity and functionality of mRNA vaccine constructs is a key challenge once formulated into solid form. The first part of our collaboration with Imperial College London was to test whether we could do this with DNA substitutes. It was a success and we intend to apply the learning to a self-amplifying RNA vaccine construct being developed by Imperial…” added Hipkiss.
In addition, aVaxziPen has recently announced positive immunogenicity data demonstrating an immune equivalent to traditional injectable needle injection when using a solid-dose formulation without a needle. This data, from four in vivo models, reinforces the value of the company’s vaccine platform as a new way to deliver vaccines for a variety of diseases, including tetanus, anthrax, influenza and peanut allergy.
Opportunity for pharmacy
The 2003 SARS outbreak was quickly brought under control, leading to the abandonment of a vaccine against it. On the other hand, the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic is causing a lot of vaccines and renewed interest in vaccines among investors. However, most of the funds go to multiple platforms. Frédéric Garzoni, co-founder and chief scientific officer (CSO) of UK biotech Imophoron, noted how this is a challenge for newer vaccine platforms like those developed by his startup, which engineer proteins with large particle structures that look like viruses.
“All available money goes towards technology that has been used in human trials before and has been shown to be safe. This is understandable but we must prepare for the future now to prevent future outbreaks and invest in new technologies. Not five or ten but hundreds.” Garzoni said.
Going forward, there needs to be ongoing funding and efforts to develop other vaccine platforms. “We need to be prepared for future viruses that will come to challenge humanity. We need a portfolio, a toolbox if you will. Some of them will be fast to implement, some will be slower but will have other advantages, etc. Complementarity will be key,” added Garzoni.