Coronavirus France: where do we stand on vaccine research?

Strain to be identified, tests to be performed, duration of immunity to be determined ... the race to find a vaccine against Covid-19 is still long. The Prime Minister, like the researchers, spoke of availability not before mid-2021.

Life before, it’s not for now, warned Edouard Philippe Sunday at a press conference. In outlining a very progressive deconfinement, the Prime Minister recalled that many goals remained to be accomplished in this battle against the Coronavirus. A battle on a global level, while the virus has killed more than 166,000 people, which involves the discovery of a vaccine to stop the epidemic.

Why is a vaccine essential?

“The Grail is to find a vaccine, or vaccines,” assured Sunday Florence Ader, infectious disease specialist at the Croix-Rousse hospital in Lyon, accompanying Edouard Philippe and Olivier Véran during a press conference. This observation echoes that drawn up by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the boss of the WHO, a week ago:

“In the end, the development and distribution of a safe and effective vaccine will be necessary to completely interrupt the transmission.”

For the time being, only containment has produced effects by limiting the spread of the virus. When deconfinement is underway, social distancing, wearing a mask, serological tests or even isolating infected people will be put in place. Measures that are difficult to maintain in the long term.

“We will have to learn to live with the virus, because we see that the population is not immune,” acknowledged the Prime Minister.

The role of the vaccine is to bring the virus into contact with our immune system, without causing disease. A way of preparing for the future because when a vaccinated person comes into contact with the virus again, his system knows what defense to bring and thus defeat the infection. “Once the body has assimilated the right response to an infection, it does not forget it,” says virologist Bruno Lina. In fact, the principle of immunization is used for vaccination. “A population is protected when 60% of people are immunized.

Where are we on the Coronavirus vaccine?

The race for the Covid-19 vaccine is at a frantic pace. “We are indeed very committed and we got involved very early,” recalls Olivier Bogillot, president of Sanofi France. “From the beginning of the epidemic in China, our researchers in the United States and in France started to work on a vaccine to try to look on which platform to make the vaccine. We looked to see if our platform on influenza could be used to make a Coronavirus vaccine.”

Sanofi has also partnered with another GSK laboratory to try to develop a vaccine using “innovative technologies”. The research is one of 119 projects underway around the world, according to a census by the London University of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Vaccine Center. Almost all of these projects are in the pre-clinical phase, only a handful are in phase 1.

“We are still in the test, with a clinical trial in preparation in humans”, explains Morgane Rolland , Virologist and head of the unit dedicated to viral genetics in a research laboratory of the American army in Maryland. “It is a long process because there are many stages, which go from the development of a candidate, the production of this candidate and then ensuring the safety of this vaccine. These are the effects phase 1 clinic that has already started. “

Around the world, seven projects are now being tested on human beings. Florence Ader, infectiologist in Lyon, explained that the Institut Pasteur will test a vaccine in humans “from this summer”. Phase 2, out of 3, will include a larger number of people.

What difficulties encountered by researchers?

“No one has made an effective vaccine on the coronaviruses”, insists Olivier Bigellot, the president of Sanofi France, before recalling that his group “had started to work on vaccines on coronaviruses which allow us today to be faster in producing a new vaccine. ”

“We cannot make an analogy,” said Le Monde Jean-Laurent Casanova, geneticist and specialist in infectious diseases, member of the scientific council.

The other difficulty resides in the ignorance of this new virus and in particular on the current lack of information on immunity. “When we progress and we know better how the virus is structured, this allows strategies adapted to the virus,” admitted Florence Ader on Sunday. The fact remains that at present, scientists do not know how long this immunity is effective, nor how it manifests itself.

“Faced with the youth of this disease, it is impossible to be sure, but it is thought that this immunity could last only between one and two years, or not be completely protective”, continues Bruno Lina, virologist and member of the scientific council.

The vaccine would thus remind good memories of the immune system of the existence of the virus. “If it turns out that these immune defenses do not subsist over time and if the epidemic persists, this reinforces a little more the need for a vaccine”, insists for his part, professor Jean-Daniel Lelièvre, professor of immunology and head of the infectious disease department at Henri-Mondor hospital, in Créteil.

It also remains to be seen what defense the immune system sets up against Coronavirus. “There are two types of antibodies for certain diseases,” recalls Bruno Lina. “Neutralizing antibodies which neutralize the virus. And facilitating antibodies which on the contrary can help the virus to develop.”

What is the deadline for waiting for the vaccine?

“You will inoculate an arm which must be completely safe,” recalls Olivier Bigellot, president of Sanofi France, estimating that the first vaccines would be available in “18 to 24 months depending on the progress of the tests”. An estimate shared by the world of science. “No vaccine will be available for a year, or 15 to 18 months,” said Thursday, head of the vaccine innovation laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. The scientist recalls that “normally, making a vaccine from scratch against a virus, it takes at least eight years”.

“Coronaviruses compared to other viruses, mutate much less quickly than other viruses. When we have a vaccine, it will undoubtedly be a universal vaccine which will work against all the strains which circulate”, reassures Morgane Rolland, estimating that if “the virus evolves, we can modify it, adapt it as we do for the flu vaccine”.

After the design phase will remain the production phase. “You have to produce millions, hundreds of millions, billions of doses,” concludes Olivier Bigelot. “You have to find the vaccine but you also have to produce it.”

David T

David T is a french Medical student, during its free time, he is writing for The Medical Progress and helping us to understand better the Coronavirus.

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