By Matthew R. Bailey
The speed with which coronavirus research has moved is a tribute to the ingenuity of scientists, the potential of public-private partnerships and some unsung heroes: lab animals.
More than 125 potential vaccines are in development some seven months after the world first learned of the coronavirus. We can thank animal research for that.
Take the promising work underway at Pennsylvania-based biotechnology company Inovio. Preclinical studies of its candidate vaccine, designated INO-4800, revealed a strong immune response in mice and guinea pigs.
Researchers at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University in the United Kingdom teamed up with the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to develop a vaccine called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19. It provoked an immune response in a trial involving rhesus monkeys.
ChAdOx1 is undergoing human trials that are already yielding promising results. The vaccine produced antibodies and T-cells capable of fighting the virus in test subjects, researchers reported last week. Another trial, which will distribute ChAdOx1 to more than 30,000 participants, is set to begin in the U.S. in August. Researchers are aiming for a mass-producible vaccine that can generate antibodies with a single dose.
Animal research is also helping answer a question that has worried scientists since Covid-19 appeared. If someone gets the disease, will they subsequently develop immunity that prevents them from getting it again? In another study, the Beth Israel researchers exposed nine monkeys to the virus. All recovered and developed antibodies. All nine monkeys enjoyed nearly full protection when re-exposed more than a month later.
The U.S. government is supporting these partnerships through “Operation Warp Speed,” an effort to get successful vaccines produced and distributed on a mass scale by early 2021. The federal money will help fund production facilities and the manufacture of such materials as vials and syringes while vaccines are in development, rather than waiting until final approval. Given the urgency of developing a coronavirus vaccine, some people, including animal activists, have argued scientists should skip trials in animals and proceed directly to humans. But the Food and Drug Administration requires submission of robust data showing a vaccine is safe in animals before the agency will permit researchers to administer it to patients.
That’s why the leading Covid-19 vaccines selected to participate in Operation Warp Speed have all undergone extensive animal testing and will go through additional research in animals to prove that they’re safe at the same time they’re going through clinical trials in humans.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has noted, “There are diseases in which you vaccinate someone, they get infected with what you are trying to protect them with, and you actually enhance the infection. You can get a good feel for that in animal models.”
In other words, we need animal models to evaluate whether candidate vaccines actually deliver immunity – or unwittingly make the virus more infectious.
Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.
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