At a time when the spread of the novel coronavirus poses a major public health threat to all the affected countries, the scientific community is working day and night to respond as quickly as possible to the challenges this pandemic represents. The government, too, is encouraging research in the development of potential vaccines and is also considering temporarily relaxing clinical trial norms to fight the threat of COVID-19 which has infected over nine lakh people worldwide and killed nearly 45,000 people as of today.
Dr Seema Mishra, Assistant Professor of Bioinformatics and Systems biology laboratory in the Department of Biochemistry at University of Hyderabad, talks to THE WEEK as she races against time in developing a vaccine that can fight the novel coronavirus.
Excerpts from the interview
You have developed a potential vaccine to fight COVID-19. Please tell us in detail about it.
The novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV vaccine is currently at design stage. This is a potential peptide-based vaccine. These peptides are taken from coronavirus structural (proteins which make up the virus structure) and non-structural proteins. As there is less data on the nature of a particular coronaviral protein as being virulent, all ten coronaviral proteins were taken into account to design potential vaccine candidates. This peptide vaccine is based on the fact that immune cells inside the body, called T cells, recognise the viral peptide (also called T cell epitope) on the cell surface as foreign and quickly mount an immune response to destroy that cell in order to clear the infection. Choosing these peptides, among thousands of other peptides, which can help mount the immune response is a cumbersome process.
Usually any vaccine discovery takes years on end....
Usually, it takes about 15 years to fully develop a peptide-based vaccine starting from design to development and human clinical trials. Even the first basic step, which is the laboratory exploratory stage to identify antigenic epitopes, takes 2-4 years! However, utilizing powerful immunoinformatics approaches with computational softwares developed, within a short span of time--in my case, 10 days—and lesser cost, one can design and select a peptide (T cell epitopes) list for further experimental trials.
When did you start with it, and how did it progress?
My work using immuninformatics actually started at AIIMS, New Delhi, while designing potential T cell epitope vaccines for cancer immunotherapy way back in 2005. Then, my research took another direction in computational systems biology approaches in cancer. So, when the time came for a swift action to tackle coronavirus and contribute in fight for survival against this deadly pathogen, I jumped into the fray. The principles and software tools required for designing vaccine candidates against cancer and nCoV are the same, and so it was not difficult to establish. Within a matter of 10 days during the government lockdown in March, I used the work-from-home opportunity to full advantage to provide the scientific community this candidate epitope set to work with.
Have you shared it with the scientific community at large?
Yes, this work has been disseminated swiftly to the scientific community through ChemRxiv preprint platform at ChemRxiv.org. This preprint platform is managed by American Chemical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, The Chemical Society of Japan among others. The beauty of preprints is that you can rapidly disseminate your initial findings to the world and establish priority of a discovery as well as be free to publish in a peer-reviewed journal at a later stage. Conventional peer-reviewed journals take a time of about 3 to 6 months for publishing and by then, much of the useful information is lost when time is of the essence.
What further work does remain to be done to make it ready for use? How do you plan to test it?
Further fine-tuning of more such candidate epitopes needs to be done. Structural and conservancy analyses will help narrow down this list to few key candidates. There is a battery of wet lab assays to be done as well as pre-clinical and clinical trials. It may take about one to one-and-a-half-years to fully develop a safe and effective vaccine, if we act fast.
What is your analysis of the present situation of COVID-19 in the country with regard to its spread?
Our country has acted swiftly and it is a good initiative of our Honourable Prime Minister to ensure the lockdown and prevention of further spread of the virus. This is a much needed initiative and now it all needs to be complied strictly by the people of India with self-discipline till the situation demands.
How is the western world preparing a vaccine against COVID-19? Could you compare our vaccine development against theirs?
World Health Organization (WHO) has shared a draft report of COVID-19 candidate vaccines with us. As of March 20, 2020, two candidate vaccines are at clinical evaluation and 42 at pre-clinical stage. These vaccines are being developed using a variety of platforms like DNA-based, subunit peptide-based, live attenuated and even adenovirus-based vaccines. From this list, we are informed that from India, two companies are in the list—one is Zydus Cadila using replicating viral vector platform and other is Serum Institute of India in partnership with Codegenix, USA using live attenuated virus platform. To the best of my knowledge, this work is the first one from India establishing subunit peptide vaccine platform which is safer than using live attenuated viruses. We hope to develop a safe and effective vaccine, which can withstand immune backfiring, as one has to look out for developing immunopathologies, too, and avoid this pitfall.