Scientists from Cuba and China want to get ahead of future pandemics by investigating a potential generic vaccine that protects against different types of coronavirus and possible emerging variants.
The project Pan-Corona It is based in a joint biotechnology research and development center that has been operating since 2019 in the city of Yongzhou (central Hunan province) and is led by experts from the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) of the Caribbean island.
“All the predictions and scientific rationality suggest that unfortunately we will have to suffer new epidemics as a logical result of the increase of the world population, animal production and the movement of people “, explained in an interview Dr. Gerardo Guillén, director of Biomedical Research at CIGB.
For scientists, unfortunately we will have to suffer new epidemics. Photo: Bloomberg.
The initiative focuses on coronaviruses not only due to the global crisis caused by SARS-CoV-2, but also taking into account that this family of viruses is one of the most likely to jump from animals to humans (a phenomenon called zoonosis) , with antecedents such as MERS in the Middle East or SARS-CoV-1.
How is a generic vaccine made?
“We have learned from what has been happening in recent years and we would be naive if we did not prepare for possible new emergencies. China knows this too, “he said.
Thus, in February of last year, with the covid-19 pandemic in its infancy, the CIGB presented this project to a call from the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and got funding to start investigating “something different”, given that “everyone” was already working on vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.
Cuban scientists leading the Pan-Corona research have not been able to travel to China due to border closures. Photo: Bloomberg
Pan-Corona is an antigen recombinant type, which is the vaccine development platform in which the CIGB has the most experience, with a successful history such as hepatitis B, in addition to two of the candidates against covid-19, one of them (Abdala) in last phase of clinical trials.
“We are not starting from scratch or trying something unprecedented, therefore we trust that we are going to advance quickly,” he said, and recalled that the institution has more than 50 research projects not only in vaccines, but also in oncology, infectious diseases, cardioprotection or autoimmunity.
The vaccine candidate -explained the scientist- combines two immune response mechanisms: the humoral, which is the response of antibodies, and the cell phone, which are activated cells to fight the virus.
“We are looking, among the different coronaviruses, for conserved regions for both antibody and cellular responses,” he added.
In other words: a vaccine is being designed that artificially combines common fragments of different types of coronavirus already known, with the aim of inducing an antibody response in the body.
In the design, bioinformatics and modeling groups from the CIGB have worked, whose task has been to study and select the “regions” that are conserved in both human and animal samples of the virus, to be able to combine them in a single vaccine.
The vast amount of information shared by the international scientific community in the wake of the current pandemic has been key to making rapid progress in this initiative. “Hopefully this will continue,” Guillén confided.
The fact that there are more than 300 vaccine candidates developing at the same time in the world, more than 80 of them in clinical studies and thirteen already authorized vaccines “is something unprecedented in humanity“, stressed the expert.
But ironically, the new coronavirus pandemic, a determining factor in the conception of this project, is also the factor that is weighing it down.
The knowledge accumulated in recent months has propelled the work, but the Cuban scientists leading the Pan-Corona research have not yet been able to travel to China due to the border closures and strict entry requirements.
Investigate under embargo
Being able to investigate on-site in Yongzhou it’s crucial in this case due to access to advanced technology, materials and other resources, something that in Cuba is impossible due to the acute economic crisis that the country is experiencing and the obstacles imposed by the United States embargo, which has also been reinforced in recent years.
“The blockade (as the embargo is called in Cuba) is an enormous limitation, even the increased cost of raw materials, which for Cuba is double, triple, quadruple because we cannot bring them directly from the US, which is the closest market and where these inputs that we need are most produced. Also the limitation with the equipment, the spare parts … “, enumerated Guillén.
These obstacles, however, have also made the island’s scientists more creative: “Without a doubt, the blockade has forced us to innovate, because others could have the things they need and we have to find other ways to achieve the same result. “.
“There is no such reagent, well, how can we replace it, how can we change the process,” he said.
The author is a journalist for EFE
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