Research has been called to develop drugs, vaccines and testing methods as quickly as possible to fight the SARS-coronavirus-2. A fast-track procedure has made additional funding available to scientists at the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) for this purpose.
The research package put together by scientists at the DZIF is pursuing ambitious goals: New diagnostic testing methods, antiviral drugs and a vaccine against the virus are on the agenda. “ We are optimistic that our research work at the DZIF can make substantial contributions in the fight against the virus,” explains Prof. Stephan Becker from Marburg University. He is the Coordinator of the DZIF research area “Emerging Infections”.
Prevention: Vaccines do not assemble themselves on their own
DZIF scientists in Munich, Marburg and Hamburg use the expertise previously acquired from developing a vaccine against MERS, a different type of coronavirus. They are using the same vector virus, a smallpox virus which has been modified and rendered harmless, into which they now insert the genetic information of a SARS-CoV-2 surface protein instead of the previously inserted MERS information. The scientists selected a so-called spike protein, which lies on the surface of the virus and enables the virus to enter human cells, to use as a suitable building block.
“This may initially sound like simple assembly work, but it does require a substantial amount of meticulous research work,” explains Prof. Gerd Sutter, virologist at LMU Munich. First we need to synthesise both the vector and the corona spike protein genes. Then we have to assemble these genetic building blocks in such a way that they can finally be administered as a recombinant vaccine. The resulting vaccine virus should be able to penetrate into the cells and produce the virus’s spike protein in the cells so as to stimulate the vaccinated person’s immune system. Whether this is effective will first have to be tested in a cell model and subsequently in animal models and on humans.
“These precise testing systems have to developed alongside each other,” adds Prof. Stephan Becker from Marburg University. “We also do this at the DZIF.” Research questions include: Which antibodies are developed in the animal model and subsequently in humans? Are the number of antibodies produced sufficient to provide protection against the virus and how long does this vaccine protection last? At the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Prof. Marylyn Addo is leading a research group which is conducting parallel analyses of patient biosamples so as to determine the human body’s immune response more precisely. These are important investigations which pave the way to an effective vaccine. “If the current plan works, we should have a vaccine that works in animal models in early 2021,” Addo hopes. Prof. Marylyn Addo will lead the clinical trials at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE). She substantially contributed towards the development of the Ebola and MERS vaccines which are both still undergoing clinical trials.
Treatment: Emergency drugs
The development of antiviral drugs could be faster than the development of a new vaccine. The scientists develop in vitro assays and animal models to serve as a basis for testing antiviral substances. Especially agents which have already been approved for other indications hold promise as drugs which could be used in the short term.
Diagnosis: Rapid and safe tests
Shortly after the outbreak in China in January 2020, DZIF scientists at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin developed the first test for SARS-CoV-2. Using the virus’s genetic information, Prof. Christian Drosten and his team succeeded in developing a test based on the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technique. The test is currently being used worldwide. Now the aim is to refine the test methods as well as to develop and validate new tests which can be used to determine immune responses in the human body. “We will only be able to develop a vaccine once we know what happens inside the patient’s body,” Drosten explains.