Are scientists merely toeing the line of their political masters when they say that a potential cure for COVID-19 could be just around the corner? As fatalities continue to mount, can technology really deliver humanity from this scourge? The short answer: Yes.
Developing a vaccine is no child’s play. Despite the significant resources being poured into finding a cure to COVID-19, scientists estimate that it could be anywhere between 12-18 months before a credible formula is green-lit for production. This estimate by WHO Chief Scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan a fortnight ago echoes similar assessments by experts around the world like Dr Anthony Fauci of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Purists, however, have disparaged these claims, arguing that speeding up the vaccine development and certification timeline to such as an extent was a preposterous notion at best. A more realistic timeline is 10-15 years, they say. The evidence backs up the assertions of the conservative camp.
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For one, the scientific community is yet to find a breakthrough against pathogens that have been around for decades, like AIDS and Ebola. As a rule of thumb, only 1 out of every 100 candidate vaccines typically make it through the rigorous regulatory approval stage to finally enter large scale production, which itself can take up to 2 years. And yet, initial trials started on as many as 3 candidate vaccines in early April 2020, just 63 days after the genetic makeup of SARS-COV-2 was discovered, a number that has since shot past the 200 mark. The guarded optimism in scientific circles is grounded in rapid advances in biotechnology and clinical research that have, for the first time, made it possible for a vaccine to go from concept to market in record time.
There are a number of new additions the scientific community has added to its arsenal in the last few years which will help turn the tide against COVID-19:
In the exploratory stage, scientists need huge amounts of data to validate their hypothesis about a potential vaccine candidate. Rather than reinvent the wheel, researchers are looking to build on the research that has already been done on the SARS and MERS viruses, which are fundamentally similar to SAR-COV-2. They now have access to public domain databases holding data on hundreds of cases across the world. This data can be invaluable in helping researchers calibrate their approach and greatly improve their chances of finding a workable solution. When a drug enters clinical development, different test subjects could react differently to the vaccine. Some may exhibit toxic side-effects while others may make full recovery. Big data can help scientists rule out potential anomalies more reliably than before. Databases like the Vaccine Investigation and Online Information Network (VIOLIN) and GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data) have greatly streamlined data collection and analysis for vaccine development teams around the world. COVID-19 will be the first big test of this digitised research and development framework known in scientific circles as Vaccinology 3.0.
Big data can help scientists rule out potential anomalies more reliably than before.
Mining millions of terabytes of data requires serious computing power. Fortunately, there is no dearth of cutting-edge supercomputers that can assess, identify and validate treatment protocols in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take. From the US to Japan, governments and corporations are rolling out the big guns in an effort to pin down the antibodies that could impair the protein spikes used by the COVID-19 pathogen to invade healthy cells. The COVID-19 High Power Computing Consortium is an international effort centred around pooling computing resources belonging to industry, academia and government laboratories to further the cause of coronavirus research. As of June 2020, the project boasts 41 members, running a total of 67 active research projects. Across the Pacific, the Japanese Fukagu supercomputer – the world’s fastest at 415 trillion operations per second – has been pressed into service to carry out simulations on how the SARS-COV-2 virus propagates between people. Experts say that the current generation supercomputers are up to 100 times faster than a decade ago, greatly accelerating the speed of vaccine research and development.
One of the biggest worries confronting experts is the ability of SARS-COV-2 to mutate and adapt to a variety of geographical conditions. At least 8 different strains have been identified so far. This is a big reason why traditional cell-culture processes used to develop a vaccine are simply not fast enough to counter this disease, which has already reached pandemic proportions. Scientists are now using genetic engineering to rapidly isolate a virus particle and map its genetic sequence. This is then used to genetically engineer antibodies capable of triggering the body’s immune response. This gene-based approach allows scientists to respond faster to viral mutation and also enables manufacturers to rapidly scale production at a relatively lower cost. Rapid vaccine prototyping projects are currently underway at many companies and government laboratories around the world. If successful, this technology could revolutionise humanity’s fight back against the deadliest virus in almost a century.
Gene-based approach allows scientists to respond faster to viral mutation and also enables manufacturers to rapidly scale production at a relatively lower cost.
India’s position on the technology leaderboard
With the infection tally crossing the 5 lakh mark in India, time is running out for a country that is yet to hit its peak. Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a home-grown coronavirus vaccine in April, Indian companies like Zydus Cadila, Biological E, Bharat Biotech and Indian Immunologicals have thrown their hats into the ring. If successful, the breakthrough could be India’s own ‘one giant leap for mankind’ moment that will forever change the country’s standing in the comity of nations.
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Though India is an acknowledged leader in the generic drugs sector, it will need to find synergies with global partners in its quest for the development of a new COVID-19 vaccine while keeping up local efforts to develop one. Under the aegis of the Pune-based National Institute of Virology, Indian scientists can make a significant contribution to the development of a credible antidote to coronavirus just as they have in global projects like CERN, Geneva. More than a billion people are rooting for them to succeed.