5 August 2020

COVID-19 Vaccine: Endgame

By Dr Xavier Chee

Against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the race for COVID-19 vaccine is showing positive signs. A new vaccine, named mRNA-1273, developed by the American biotechnology company, Moderna Therapeutics, showed positive results in their Phase I/II clinical trials. On the 27 July 2020, the company officially kicked off their Phase III clinical trials involving 30,000 participants. The preliminary results for the Phase III clinical trial is largely expected to be announced sometime in November.

This news from Moderna is nothing short of a miracle in the scientific community. Typically, it would take 10-15 years to bring a new vaccine to clinical trials. However, in the case of Moderna, it only took them around two months from virus isolation to bringing forth their vaccines in clinical trials. However, it should be said that Moderna is not the only company that managed to develop a vaccine at such a neck-breaking speed in vaccine discovery. Other vaccines such as the ChAdOx1 nCOV-19 vaccine (Oxford/AstraZeneca) or CoronaVac (Sinovac) have similarly moved into Phase III clinical trials.

What truly sets mRNA-1273 apart is the way it works. The messenger RNA (mRNA) is a piece of genomic sequence that codes for proteins in living organisms. In the case of Moderna, the company had engineered a vaccine containing mRNA that codes for the ‘spike’ protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. When injected as vaccine into the human body, the mRNA will use the body protein production machinery to produce viral proteins. Subsequently, these viral proteins will provoke the human immune system to produce antibodies against these viral proteins.

The intention behind this vaccine is that the next time the human body is exposed to SARS-CoV-2 virus, the body would be able to mount a rapid and forceful immune response to neutralize the virus before the virus can wreak havoc. Hopefully, when an effective vaccine is discovered, some resemblance of normalcy can be returned to society and this would mark the end of the COVID-19 saga.

More importantly, at the tail-end of this saga, COVID-19 should serve as a cautionary tale to all of us on the importance of nature protection and conservation. COVID-19 is a form of zoonotic disease where the pathogens, like virus, jumps from animals to humans. Ever since the SARS pandemic in 2003, the emergence of zoonotic diseases has increased in its frequency. Emergence of these diseases include the H5N1 Avian Flu (2005), H1N1 Swine Flu (2009), West Nile Virus (2012), Ebola (2014), Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (2015) and most recently COVID-19 (2019).

All these major pandemic occurs against the backdrop of existing zoonotic diseases such as the Zika virus, Nipah virus, Lyme diseases and yellow fever that are still ravaging less-developed countries. The general scientific consensus is that human activities are responsible for emergence of zoonotic diseases. For example, rapid deforestations and human incursions into unchartered wildlife territories exposes humans to new diseases. Additionally, poorly regulated wildlife trades in wet markets are also ticking time bombs for the next zoonotic pandemic.

As of current, COVID-19 has claimed over 680,000 deaths worldwide. Recently, an opinion piece by Professor Andrew Dobson and colleagues from Keele University places an estimate that the total cost of COVID-19 could reach USD16 trillion, while preventing deforestation and regulating wildlife trade would cost only between USD20 to 30 billion every year. To put that into perspective, it is 500 times cheaper to protect the environment to prevent another pandemic than it is to fight in one.

In conjunction with the World Environment Day on 5 June 2020, UN chief Antonio Guterres said in this speech, “Nature is sending us a clear message. We are harming the natural world, to our own detriment”. Question is, will we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, or will we be stuck in an Infinity War between zoonotic diseases and mankind?

Dr Xavier Chee is a lecturer at the School of Chemical Engineering and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at xchee@swinburne.edu.my.