Humans have been very fortunate to have been protected by vaccines for more than two centuries. The path to get from the identification of an infectious disease to have an effective vaccine is complex, to put it mildly. The issues include research and development, testing, procurement of dependable funding, scaleable manufacturing, equitable and efficient distribution, assured safety, management of public fears of inoculation, and global political considerations. What used to take years, now takes months. Why? It has nothing to do with politicians pushing to go faster. It has everything to do with bioinformatics, genomics, AI, machine learning, cloud computing, and synthetic biology. I believe the transition from years to months will continue to days and maybe even hours.
First, consider how we have developed flu vaccines in the past. It would start with a mucus sample received in the mail. Laboratory scientists and technicians would tediously isolate the virus. Next, they would inject a sample of it into chicken eggs, and then let them incubate. The vaccine selection and production process would take six months or more. Meanwhile, the flu virus has mutated and the vaccine may not work very well. This is why vaccines are administered on an annual basis, to make a best guess as to what the virus will look like by the end of the six month process and then produce enough vaccine to immunize the population.
I first wrote about synthetic vaccines in 2013. It looked like a pipe dream to many, but it is now becoming a reality. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put $60 million into coronavirus research including for a synthetic biology (synbio) effort. Synbio is mostly about the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems. More specific to the issue of the day, synbio may replace the DNA and RNA ingredients mother nature has provided for the development of vaccines with synthetic ingredients. As I mentioned above, the huge advances in cloud computing, AI, genetic sequencing, and collaborative tools are making timelines possible which were unthinkable in the recent past. The best is yet to come.
A vaccine made from synthetic ingredients can potentially offer some significant advantages. The big one is scalability. Synbio vaccines could be produced efficiently for millions or even billions of doses. Another advantage is synthetic ingredients do not need to be refrigerated. This would be a huge benefit for places like sub-Saharan Africa. The need for refrigeration is one of the barriers to rapid and global distribution of vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine candidates require ultra-low temperatures, raising questions about storage, distribution. Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine candidate, requires a storage temperature of -4 degrees Fahrenheit, yes minus. BioNTech and Pfizer’s candidates need to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit.
Synbio vaccines are developed using computer models, not flasks and test tubes. With billions of calculations, a nanoparticle can be designed which has the exact properties desired. The really big breakthrough with synbio is the attachment of viral molecules to the nanoparticle. Neil King at the University of Washington and his synbio colleagues knew there would be another coronavirus epidemic, like the SARS and MERS outbreaks before the current Covid-19 outbreak. King said, “…there will be another one after this,” perhaps from yet another member of this virus family. We need a universal coronavirus vaccine.” One vaccine for all corona viruses. That will be the breakthrough.
Fortunately, there are a lot of very smart people working on this. SynBioBeta is an innovation network for biological engineers, investors, innovators, and entrepreneurs who share a passion for using biology to build a better, more sustainable universe. SynBioBeta hosts The Global Synthetic Biology Summit in San Francisco in October each year. SynBioBeta says the Summit,
Showcases the cutting-edge developments in synthetic biology that are transforming how we fuel, heal, and feed the world. And we provide ample opportunities to meet and explore with the bright minds building the bioeconomy.
Dr. Craig Venter, an American biochemist, geneticist, and entrepreneur known for being one of the first to sequence the human genome, is an advocate for a new and innovative digital approach for the development of vaccines. Venter said the process used for developing the H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, vaccine took many months and the supply was barely adequate to cover healthcare workers. He said if the H1N1 virus had been as deadly and widespread as some had forecasted, we would have had a very bad situation.
Venter envisions vaccines being developed using synthetic DNA instead of “billions of eggs”. He has written how DNA data about a virus to be protected against can be developed into a digital recipe and emailed to laboratories which could then begin production of the vaccine at facilities all over the world within 12 hours. The Covid-19 crisis has caused an increase in the sense of urgency to approve new ways of thinking such as this.
One final thought about the future of vaccines has to do with syringes, essential for delivering vaccine. I will be the first to admit, I don’t like needles. My wife and daughter, both nurses, think I am a wuss. I am not afraid, I just don’t like the experience. Unfortunately, many people are afraid for themselves or their children and transfer the fear into inaction and, in some cases, spreading the fear. The fear jeopardizes their own health and also the path to a herd effect and strong public health.
Syringes could become a thing of the past. Scientists at the Hilleman Labs in India have developed micro-patches which can be used for routine immunizations. The patches are cheap to produce and easy to store without chilling. The patches don’t need special training to be applied, and potentially will be able to be used by consumers at home. Delivered by drones, the patches could become a potential lifeline for rural and poor families around the world. Vaccination by patches could become a reality before the end of the decade.
And let us not forget the importance of flu vaccinations. I believe most doctors will recommend October as the ideal time to get the shot. Hopefully, a covid vaccine will be widely available in the Spring or earlier. In the meantime, as Dr. Fauci, Dr. Redfield, and others have urged, the best thing we can do to avoid spikes in cases and mortality is to do a good job in hygiene, distancing, and masks. Those who are opposed to masks are unknowingly being selfish. The subtly is the mask is not to protect us, it is to protect others. If we all wear them, it is a win-win.