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Scientists working together in race to make COVID-19 vaccine

There are many paths towards an effective coronavirus vaccine. A University of Copenhagen researcher explains how an EU-supported project is taking one of them.

As the Covid-19 virus spreads throughout the world, three University of Copenhagen (UCPH) scientists are part of an EU-funded group that is working on a vaccine.

But how do you go about rapidly developing a vaccine? And how does the work on the EU-funded group differ from other vaccine development strategies? The University Post interviewed a scientist working on the project, Associate Professor Morten Agertoug Nielsen, while he drove his car to a meeting with other scientists in Copenhagen.

The EU has granted EUR 2.7 million, or about DKK 20 million, to a consortium which includes Morten Agertoug Nielsen and Associate Professor Adam Sander, and Professor Ali Salanti from the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at UCPH.

The scientific community has been very agile in this crisis, and many companies have put out data and results on their homepages

Morten Agertoug Nielsen

The consortium also includes scientists from the University of Tübingen, Leiden University Medical Center, Wageningen University and the companies AdaptVac and ExpreS2ion, and is part of a wider set of research grants to a total of 17 Covid-19-related projects.

»We are already well underway in terms of designing a vaccine, but it is very expensive to scale up the production and ensure that the vaccine is ready to be used on people. And this would not have been possible without the funding from the EU,« explained Morten Agertoug Nielsen in an earlier release from the University of Copenhagen.

EU emergency grants to fight Covid-19 outbreak

The EU Commission has scaled up its emergency funding in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak. It supports 17 projects involving 136 research teams from across the EU and beyond, which will start working on developing vaccines, new treatments, diagnostic tests, and medical systems aimed at preventing the spread of the Coronavirus.

The specific project that the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) is a part of is for EUR 2.7 million, or about DKK 20 million, and goes to a consortium which includes associate professors Morten Agertoug Nielsen and Adam Sander, and Professor Ali Salanti from the Department of Immunology and Microbiology.

The consortium also includes scientists from the University of Tübingen, Leiden University Medical Center, Wageningen University and firmaerne AdaptVac and ExpreS2ion.

Spirit of transparency

In the race to develop a vaccine, scientists worldwide have come together in the spirit of co-operation, he says.

»The EU’s Horizon 2020 grant is based on transparency, and as much as possible is going to be open research. The scientific community has been very agile in this crisis, and many companies have put out data and results on their homepages,« explains Morten Agertoug Nielsen.

Companies and institutions are exploring different methods in parallel, so the University Post asked Morten Agertoug Nielsen to explain how the methods of his specific EU-supported consortium, which includes the University of Copenhagen, differs from other initiatives.

As he sees it, there are three main lines of rapid vaccine development.

First type: Immunizing with RNA and DNA

A first line of rapid development of vaccines, in other initiatives, is immunizing with RNA and DNA, according to Morten Agertoug Nielsen.

Here, »for instance DNA, that codes for coronavirus protein, is injected to the skin or muscle tissue, that is then overexpressed and you can get an immune reaction against the coronavirus protein in humans. That is a fast way because you only need the DNA. The production methods do not rely on what the DNA is coding for,« he explains.

»The problem with this technique is that the immune response you get is generally not very high or long-lived,« he adds.

Second type: Viral vectors

A second line of rapid vaccine development is using ‘viral vectors’, he says.

»Here you encode the coronavirus gene into a viral vector. The basic idea is that you make a new virus that is not causing disease and inject that into humans.«

»There are not many approved vaccines based on this technology and it can be a problem to carry out quality control, that is, [finding out, ed.] whether the corona virus antigen has the right conformation when expressed by another virus.«

The other method

A good thing about this technology is that we can produce it in high amounts. When we have that protein our technology is that we can enhance the immunogenicity of it

Morten Agertoug Nielsen

The consortium that includes the University of Copenhagen scientists uses another, novel, approach.

»In our case, we use recombinant technology, where we take a coronavirus gene and clone it into ‘factory cells’ that express the protein for us. We then purify the protein. Once we have it pure, we quality control it. For example test whether it binds to the human receptor.«

»A good thing about this technology is that we can produce it in high amounts. When we have that protein, our technology is, that we can enhance the immunogenicity of it. Basically , we express the coronavirus antigen with a non-coronavirus protein tag. That tag allows us to attach the coronavirus to a capsid [the empty protein shell of a virus, ed.] particle. So now the coronavirus is attached to a particle that looks like a dangerous virus. The immune system has evolved to strongly react to virus shapes, so we get a rapid and high level antibody response to this particle.«

Hope for clinical trials within 12 months

The worldwide scientific push for a vaccine will take time.

And as for this specific project, scientists cannot say exactly when their vaccine can be ready for use on people. They do however have an estimate for the first clinical trials.

»We hope that we within 12 months have carried out the first clinical trials. This will also be the first so-called ’proof of principle’ of our vaccine technology,« explained Ali Salanti, another University of Copenhagen researcher on the project, in the release.

The patent for the vaccine technology is owned by the University of Copenhagen, and the preclinical tests will be carried out there. The researchers have founded a spinout company called NextGen Vaccines, which together with the biotech company ExpreS2ion has set up a joint venture called AdaptVac. All three of these entities are co-operating on developing the new types of vaccine that includes the one against Covid-19.

The project is part of a wider EU Commission grant under the research programme that supports a total of 17 Covid-19-related projects.

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