Success in 22 mice: the odyssey of the most advanced Spanish vaccine

Science

By CAPosts 21 January, 2021 - 05:30pm 82 views

Just over a year ago, on January 10, 2020 , the Chinese virologist Yong-Zhen Zhang shared on the internet the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus that terrorized the citizens of Wuhan. That day began a frantic race to try to avoid millions of deaths in the world. Three days later, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American company Moderna had already designed an experimental vaccine. On March 16, the first volunteer was injected. Today there are more than 50 million people vaccinated in the world with this and other vaccines already authorized. The project to have a Spanish vaccine , by comparison, looks like a slow-motion movie.

The Ministry of Science announced this Thursday that the most advanced Spanish vaccine candidate has shown "100% efficacy" in its first tests on animals, after a test with 22 mice genetically modified to be susceptible to the coronavirus. The two responsible for this experimental vaccine, Mariano Esteban and Juan García Arriaza , relate the obstacle course they are facing: extreme job insecurity, a meager budget, a shortage of human vaccine factories and even a lack of experimental animals . "We have to put the batteries together so that tomorrow, when a new pandemic comes, we have everything ready and do not depend on others," warns García Arriaza, from the National Center for Biotechnology (CSIC), in Madrid.

The team Spanish joined the race for the vaccine on January 11, 2020. Three months later, Minister Pedro Duque announced that Spain already had a candidate for the vaccine. "There is still the possibility that Spanish laboratories will find the first vaccine that would be useful for this pandemic," Duque declared on April 17. He was too optimistic. At that time, the CSIC researchers were waiting for humanized mice to arrive in Madrid, ordered from The Jackson Laboratory , a US organization specializing in genetically modified rodents. The mice landed in Spain in early August. "We could have tested the efficacy of the vaccine much earlier, but we were incapacitated because we did not have the mice," laments García Arriaza.

Researchers will have to test their experimental vaccine in the Netherlands, because there are no laboratory monkeys in Spain

Researchers have had to lead the way. "Then we found another bottleneck: we had no company to produce the vaccine for humans," recalls García Arriaza. They contacted Biofabri , a company specialized in veterinary vaccines based in O Porriño (Pontevedra), and they got down to work, “starting from scratch”. Then they ran into another wall, this time insurmountable. In Spain there are no monkeys with which to test vaccines before making the leap to humans. The CSIC laboratory has reached an agreement with the Center for Biomedical Research in Primates , in Rijswijk (Netherlands), to begin the trials "in the coming weeks", according to García Arriaza. A trial with 12 macaques costs between half a million and a million euros, according to the researcher

Mariano Esteban explains that his laboratory has had a budget of about 700,000 euros to develop its experimental vaccine. "Those at the University of Oxford, for example, work with hundreds of millions of euros, it has nothing to do with the funding we have here," he underlines.

Esteban, 76, leads a team of 11 people at the Center National of Biotechnology. He is the only one with a permanent contract, although technically he is retired, a figure that the CSIC calls ad honorem . If he decided to leave the research, his laboratory would have to close, he explains. "It has already happened with the laboratory of Juan Ortín and Amelia Nieto, which was one of the world's leading groups in the investigation of influenza, another of the viruses that can cause us a terrible pandemic at any time", Esteban recalls. When Juan Ortín retired in 2016 and Amelia Nieto followed in his footsteps shortly after, the group dedicated to the flu virus disappeared.

“The people who worked in that laboratory have had to relocate. If this pandemic had been caused by a flu virus instead of a coronavirus, we would have found that the leading flu laboratories at the National Biotechnology Center are closed, ”criticizes García Arriaza, who has signed a contract throughout his career temporary after another . He's 46. “The working conditions that scientists in Spain have are lamentable . And science is made by people. If you have to be thinking that within a month your contract will end, this also affects scientific production ”, he complains. Minister Pedro Duque himself acknowledged in July in an interview with EL PAÍS that "the conditions of Spanish scientists are [now] worse than in 2010," although he asked for time to reform the system.

"The working conditions that scientists in Spain have are lamentable", denounces researcher Juan García Arriaza

Esteban and García Arriaza's experimental vaccine, despite everything, continues on its way. It is based on an attenuated version of the Vaccinia virus, already used in the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s and now modified with genetic information from the new coronavirus. Trials in mice suggest that two doses will be needed to completely prevent the virus from multiplying in the lungs. The plan of the Spanish researchers is to carry out a first trial with 112 people "in the coming months", to study safety and the immune response generated, and to begin a large trial with more than 20,000 volunteers before the end of 2021. Throughout the year In the world there are already 64 different experimental vaccines that are being tested in humans and another 173 in the previous research phases, according to the count of the World Health Organization.

Doctor Felipe García applauds the results in mice by Esteban and García Arriaza. "It is very good news. It is a somewhat different vaccine to the more advanced vaccines and the demonstration of its efficacy in animals to prevent the disease makes it a good candidate to be developed, "says García, a researcher at the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona who heads a consortium to produce another vaccine based on the genetic material (RNA) of the coronavirus, such as those of Pfizer and Moderna.

“I believe that we have to take advantage of this situation to build a biotechnological infrastructure dedicated to the generation of vaccines, which can serve us for future pandemics. It is very important that the same thing does not happen to us again tomorrow and that we can act much more quickly ”, argues García Arriaza. “Even if our vaccine comes later, that does not invalidate its effectiveness. In time, people already vaccinated will probably have to be immunized with a booster dose. If tomorrow we have these vaccines in Spain, much better ”, zanja.

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Source: Elpais

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