North Carolina in the Thick of Global Covid-19 Vaccine Race

Vaccine potentials are being tested in NC

July 21, 2020 

Roughly eight months after the world was first told about the novel coronavirus, the biggest test for a vaccine against Covid-19 is underway.

The first of 30,000 volunteers rolled up their sleeves at the end of July and received a shot to test an experimental vaccine developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., a private research company.

The process of testing a vaccine

Of course, there’s no guarantee the vaccine will work, but here’s how the test goes: Volunteers won’t know if they’re getting the real shot or a dummy version (placebo). After two doses, researchers will closely track which group experiences more infections as they go about their daily lives. That’s especially important if they live in areas when the virus is spreading.

Some of that sleeve rolling will be done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s one of the test sites for Moderna’s vaccine, which is based on taking genetic material, known as mRNA, from the coronavirus.

When a person gets the vaccine, their cells will make viral proteins from this mRNA, just as they would if they were infected by the coronavirus. Their immune system should learn to detect these proteins to fight off future exposure to COVID-19.

Another vaccine tested in Morrisville, NC

There’s one other North Carolina connection in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine. It’s developed by Gaithersburg, Maryland based Novavax, which is is partnering with Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies in Morrisville to test the vaccine.

While Novavax is the brains behind the effort, Diosynth, a contract manufacturer specializing in vaccine and gene therapy production, is the muscle.

"We’re the supporting act," said Diosynth Chief Business Officer Andy Fenny. “They own the technology but we’re enabling them to get to market as quickly as they possibly can.”

While Novavax has worked on vaccines for several diseases, it has never brought a vaccine to market. But Novavax’s President and Chief Executive, Stanley Erck, said the same technology that has been used in other late-stage clinical trials of experimental vaccines, including a flu vaccine, is being used for the Covid-19 vaccine.

And it’s that technology using viral proteins that caught the eye of federal health officials.

The Novavax vaccine is engineered from the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. It uses nanoparticles; microscopic particles that carry fragments of the coronavirus, prompting the body’s immune system to respond.. Federal health officials believe diversifying the portfolio of potential treatments increases the chance of success.

Novavax received $1.6B from the federal government to develop its vaccine; the largest amount given to multiple firms under “Operation Warp Speed,” the program to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

“We are grateful to the government for their faith in our technology platform” said Erck.

There are several other vaccines made by China and by Oxford University in Britain that are also beginning final-stage tests in Brazil and other hard-hit countries.But the United States requires its own tests of any vaccine used in the country. So, in addition to the testing of vaccine candidates funded by the government and developed by Moderna and Novavax, tests are also planned on a vaccine developed by Johnson and Johnson. Separately, a study of the Oxford vaccine is also scheduled in the U.S. Pfizer Inc. is planning its own study of a vaccine as well.

It normally takes years to create a vaccine from scratch, but scientists are setting speed records this time. The coronavirus wasn’t even known to exist until December. Vaccine makers sprang into action in January when China released the virus’ genetic sequence. So far, early tests showed that most of the vaccine candidates kicked the volunteer’s immune system into high gear with only minor side effects (brief fever, chills). It will be late fall until data from the larger studies is available. Until them, governments around the world are stockpiling millions of doses of the leading candidates. That way, if regulators approve one or more of the vaccines, immunizations can start right away.