At his lab in the shadow of the hogbacks west of Fort Collins, Ray Goodrich has never been busier.
“Lots of progress has been made across the board!” he beamed.
A little over a year ago, Goodrich and several other scientists at Colorado State University dropped what they were doing and devoted their full attention to developing coronavirus vaccines, hoping to end what was then a very young pandemic.
At the time, nobody knew exactly whether a vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19 was possible or how long it would take to create one. And, while the CSU researchers always knew they were behind other teams around the globe, the work still carried the exciting whiff of possibility: Could we be the people who figure this out?
Today, coronavirus vaccines developed in multiple countries are being put into arms across the globe. But Goodrich, the director of CSU’s Infectious Disease Research Center, and others at CSU are still hard at work trying to develop as many as four new vaccines for the virus.
So why continue devoting so much energy to create products that other people have already created? Because the urgency of the pandemic persists, the scientists explain.
“We can’t take our foot off the accelerator on this,” said Gregg Dean, a professor of microbiology at CSU who is working on one of the university’s vaccine candidates.
Here are four other ways to answer to that question:
Because we need more vaccines
In the United States, where currently close to a quarter of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that vaccination efforts across the world are rolling out slowly.
And getting vaccines to disadvantaged populations in those nations could be a challenge.
The current vaccines are costly — all of those approved in the United States so far came with a price tag to the U.S. government of at least $10 per dose. Those prices might even be considered discounts compared to what the vaccine makers could charge in the months and years to come.
On top of this, the cold storage required for the current vaccines and the need for them to be professionally administered — they all come as a shot — will strain resources in parts of the world without well-developed infrastructure or medical systems.
So, the world needs more vaccines. It needs cheaper vaccines. And it needs easier-to-administer vaccines. Which is why Dean thinks his vaccine could be really useful.
Dean’s candidate uses a version of the bacteria lactobacillus acidophilus (yes, the stuff found in yogurt). He and his team genetically modify it so that it is essentially wearing a coronavirus costume, which gives the body’s immune system practice for the real thing. Then, they put it into a pill that can be stored at room temperature, has a long shelf life and doesn’t require a pro to administer.
The likely cost of his vaccine per dose? “Pennies,” Dean said.
“We feel it will have broader application in low- and middle-income countries where the current vaccines will be much more difficult to distribute and administer,” Dean said.
It’s a long way off, though. The vaccine is still undergoing preclinical tests, so it is not yet ready for human clinical trials.
Because we will probably need different vaccines
The vaccines either currently approved or closest to being approved were developed at a time when all the versions of the COVID-19 virus circulating around the globe looked pretty similar. But, as is now clear, the virus doesn’t intend to sit still while we aim at it.
Already there is concern about how well the current vaccines protect against variants of the virus. The U.S. government has indicated it will grant fast-track approval to updated versions of previously approved vaccines.
But, as much as everyone hopes that vaccines will end the pandemic, it’s less likely they will be able to eradicate the virus from the Earth. It’s going to stick around, and it’s going to keep mutating, Goodrich said.
“We want to have tools and we want to have methods at hand for us to be able to respond if and when those kinds of situations arise,” Goodrich said. “That’s really the investment we’re making.”
This is where Goodrich’s vaccine comes in. It’s dubbed the SolaVAX vaccine candidate, and it’s made using a tabletop-sized machine that Goodrich invented years ago to purify blood by using UV light and riboflavin.
In contrast to production methods that try to create replicas of the coronavirus, Goodrich’s candidate starts with the real-deal virus and then runs it through the machine to inactivate it, meaning it can’t replicate and spread inside the body. The result is a production method that can pivot quickly as new forms of the virus emerge.
“You can think about using this approach to be more efficient in creating better versions of vaccines we have today,” he said.
SolaVAX is the furthest along of the CSU vaccine candidates. It has received millions of dollars in support from the National Institutes of Health, and Goodrich has begun initial conversations with federal authorities about moving into human clinical trials. Tests in animals showed the vaccine produced a strong immune response.
Because we need all the vaccine platforms we can get for the next pandemic
The first coronavirus vaccines to be approved were developed in record-smashing time. But the scientists who built them didn’t start from scratch. Instead, they had spent years or decades working on developing the biomedical technology that makes the vaccines possible.
This technology is commonly called the vaccine’s “platform” — it’s the basic building block that, with a little adornment, can be quickly made into a vaccine for one virus or another.
“What the pandemic really revealed,” Dean said, “is that we need a palette of vaccine platforms that we understand how they work, we can engineer them quickly, and we can manufacture and distribute them quickly.”
So, even if the work at CSU never produces an approved coronavirus vaccine, it could still produce vaccine platforms that will come in really handy when we need to rapidly build a new weapon for the next pandemic.
Ugh, yes, the next pandemic.
“Next time,” Dean said, “we want to be able to say, ‘OK, we have half a dozen to 10 possibilities. Let’s look at them as quickly as possible.’”
And the faster these platforms can scale up, the sooner we can end the next pandemic that we may face.
“Or, hopefully,” Goodrich said, “the next one we may prevent.”
Because we might figure out how to do something really cool
The COVID-19 virus is now the third Earth-threatening coronavirus to emerge in the world in the past 20 years.
The virus, SARS-CoV-2, takes its name from its similarity to the original SARS virus, now called SARS-CoV-1, which killed hundreds of people. Another coronavirus, MERS, has also killed hundreds.
COVID-19 has killed more than 6,000 people in Colorado, more than 540,000 people in the United States and more than 2.7 million people worldwide. But those earlier coronaviruses, while killing fewer people overall, had higher fatality rates. And the whole coronavirus family has long been at the top of virologists’ watchlists for its potential to produce pandemic threats. That’s in addition to the annoying common-cold coronaviruses that often circulate.
So, what if this research on vaccines against the COVID-19 coronavirus could lead to something of a holy grail in vaccinology — a pan-coronavirus vaccine that provides at least some protection against all of those little scoundrels?
Dean and others at CSU have begun to work on just such an idea. And it’s a daunting one.
Coronaviruses don’t mutate as fast as flu viruses, so, in theory it’s possible, Dean said. But it requires researchers to identify something that all the viruses have in common. The vaccine would need to highlight that common feature so the immune system can recognize it no matter which coronavirus walks through the door.
All of the COVID-19 vaccines focus on the virus’ spike protein, the prominent surface spines that make models of the virus look like bloated cacti. But Dean said the spike protein is also the thing that mutates most readily. So researchers will likely need to look beyond that most prominent feature to find something else.
It’s all fairly conceptual right now. There’s no candidate developed. There’s just an enthusiasm for working together to see if it’s possible and a commitment not to lose sight of the need to move science rapidly forward even once the pandemic has subsided.
“We really cannot afford to forget what has happened here and to not do a better job of being prepared,” Dean said. “We can’t fool ourselves that this can’t happen again. It certainly can.”