It will take at least a year and a half for vaccination against the new coronavirus to come onto the market, says virology professor Stephan Becker. Maybe you can develop a vaccination against several viruses.

Deutsche Welle: Prof. Becker, how do you and your research colleagues develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus?

Stephan Becker: To develop this vaccine, you have to confront the immune system of the vaccinated with the surface protein of the new virus. This is exactly how we did the MERS coronavirus that occurred in 2012.

We do it like in a modular system: the part that is finished is the vaccine platform. These can be different viruses, but they do not make people sick themselves but are harmless to them.

The genetic information for the new surface protein from the new coronavirus is then inserted into this kit. This can also happen for the Ebola virus or the MERS coronavirus or other viruses. It is possible for many viruses.

The immune system will then develop antibodies and cellular immune response against the surface protein of the new coronavirus and will hopefully react protectively upon contact, i.e. when humans are infected with the coronavirus.

You can’t say that immediately, of course. You have to develop the vaccine first, then test it on animals and finally on humans until the vaccine can be used.

This modular principle, i.e. the method of working with platforms, also hopes that development could go very quickly. 

The director of the Institute of Virology at the Philipps University Marburg Stephan Becker looks out of a high security laboratory through a window.  (Picture-alliance / dpa)Prof. Dr Becker is researching various dangerous pathogens

Yes, it is our goal that it is quick. It is relatively quick to construct a vaccine and test it in an animal model.

After that, however, you still have to examine the vaccine for its toxicity. Then you have to produce it, which can take longer because the safety conditions for vaccines are extremely high.

And after it’s produced, it needs to be tested in a clinical trial. These are all processes, they simply take their time and you cannot accelerate them at will. We have to expect that it will certainly take at least a year and a half before a vaccine can be given to patients.

The SARS virus was not unlike the current virus. At that time, vaccine development did not go beyond testing on macaques, i.e. monkeys. Why has development stopped at this point?

The reason was simply that SARS disappeared. This ran from March to July 2003 and after that, there were no more cases that should have been treated or taken care of.

Vaccine development is also expensive. A clinical phase 1 study [in which the drug is tested for undesirable effects in humans] or a phase 2 study [in which the effectiveness of the vaccination is tested in the formation of an immune response] does little if the virus no longer appears to be a threat represents.

One comment:  Don’t get infected!

This is different from Ebola, where the situation was similar. The vaccine had just finished when the first major epidemic in West Africa had just stopped. But the vaccine was still brought through an exceptionally combined phase 1 and 2 study. And that helped to be better prepared for the later epidemic in the Congo.

At Ebola, we had 40 years of experience with the virus. And we knew that Ebola outbreaks could always occur anywhere in Africa. A few hundred people – sometimes fewer, sometimes more – had always been infected, of whom about half died.

Quarantine measures usually took effect and then the outbreak came to an end. While these were dramatic outbreaks, it was not perceived as a problem for international public health.

That changed with the West Africa outbreak when suddenly many people were infected and it became clear that Ebola could destabilize entire regions. Then we all woke up again and said: ‘We have to do something now’. And then we also helped to further develop this vaccine in the clinical phase 1 study, which was already very well tested in animals.

With the SARS, on the other hand, it was not certain whether it would ever occur again anywhere. It has not occurred in 17 years, and no SARS-like virus. And that’s why the research was not continued.

It was different at MERS. There are always entries in the human population and this has been going on since 2012. In this respect, it made sense to continue developing vaccine production.

And is there now a vaccine for MERS?

Yes, we have just recently carried out a phase 1 study and it is now moving on to phase 2, and hopefully at some point in phase 3.

The German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) developed the MERS vaccine. And the DZIF then financed the phase 1 study. We have gained the support of CEPI for further studies. It is an institution where governments and large foundations have been investing money since the Ebola outbreak to fund the development of vaccines against those viruses for which there is no market.

For example, there is no market for an Ebola vaccine because the people it affects cannot pay for it. That is why a public-private partnership is being tried here because the vaccine companies are also required to produce the vaccines. And they are then financed by the public sector to produce vaccines for which the companies themselves see no prospect of making money with them.

SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus are each somewhat different. How do you deal with the fact that the virus is so versatile?

The outbreak of the new coronavirus will, of course, change our idea of ​​how to produce vaccines against coronaviruses in the future. Certainly, attempts will now be made to produce vaccines that protect against more than just one coronavirus. This is the lesson you can learn from it: That you try to develop means that can be fended off by several coronaviruses. We don’t have that at the moment.

Interestingly, this new coronavirus is very similar to SARS. But unfortunately, exactly where you need it, unfortunately not: the surface protein is very different.

So you would have to develop special procedures to develop a vaccine that works against different coronaviruses.

Many of those affected are now in quarantine. Doesn’t that also mean that the epidemic may soon come to an end before there is a vaccine – as with SARS?   

That is exactly what we want: that the draconian quarantine measures work. That would be very good. When developing a vaccine, however, you cannot wait until the whole epidemiological picture has emerged: until you know whether the virus is unfortunately preserved, as in MERS, or whether it disappears again, as in SARS.

You shouldn’t sit back and say: Only when things get bad will we do something. Then the time to do something is over. The faster you are, the better it is. Therefore, I would recommend that you continue to work on the vaccines against the new coronavirus. And when you see afterwards that the epidemic is over and the virus has not established itself in the human population, you will say: OK, then we are going to continue with a little less steam. But it is time and money well spent. 

The interview was conducted by Fabian Schmidt

Prof. Dr Stephan Becker is director of the Institute of Virology at the University of Marburg and member of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. He coordinates a collaborative research centre for RNA viruses and is the coordinator of a working group for emerging infectious diseases at the German Center for Infection Research.

Frequently Asked Questions

And is there now a vaccine for MERS?

Yes, we have just recently carried out a phase 1 study and it is now moving on to phase 2, and hopefully at some point in phase 3.



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