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Meet the Researcher Leading NIH’s COVID-19 Vaccine Development Efforts

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A Conversation with John Mascola

A safe, effective vaccine is the ultimate tool needed to end the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Biomedical researchers are making progress every day towards such a vaccine, whether it’s devising innovative technologies or figuring out ways to speed human testing. In fact, just this week, NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) established a new clinical trials network that will enroll tens of thousands of volunteers in large-scale clinical trials testing a variety of investigational COVID-19 vaccines.

Among the vaccines moving rapidly through the development pipeline is one developed by NIAID’s Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (VRC), in partnership with Moderna, Inc., Cambridge, MA. So, I couldn’t think of a better person to give us a quick overview of the COVID-19 vaccine research landscape than NIH’s Dr. John Mascola, who is Director of the VRC. Our recent conversation took place via videoconference, with John linking in from his home in Rockville, MD, and me from my place in nearby Chevy Chase. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:

Collins: Vaccines have been around since Edward Jenner and smallpox in the late 1700s. But how does a vaccine actually work to protect someone from infection?

Mascola: The immune system works by seeing something that’s foreign and then responding to it. Vaccines depend on the fact that if the immune system has seen a foreign protein or entity once, the second time the immune response will be much brisker. So, with these principles in mind, we vaccinate using part of a viral protein that the immune system will recognize as foreign. The response to this viral protein, or antigen, calls in specialized T and B cells, the so-called memory cells, and they remember the encounter. When you get exposed to the real thing, the immune system is already prepared. Its response is so rapid that you clear the virus before you get sick.

Collins: What are the steps involved in developing a vaccine?

Mascola: One can’t make a vaccine, generally speaking, without knowing something about the virus. We need to understand its surface proteins. We need to understand how the immune system sees the virus. Once that knowledge exists, we can make a candidate vaccine in the laboratory pretty quickly. We then transfer the vaccine to a manufacturing facility, called a pilot plant, that makes clinical grade material for testing. When enough testable material is available, we do a first-in-human study, often at our vaccine clinic at the NIH Clinical Center.

If those tests look promising, the next big step is finding a pharmaceutical partner to make the vaccine at large scale, seek regulatory approval, and distribute it commercially. That usually takes a while. So, from start to finish, the process often takes five or more years.

Collins: With this global crisis, we obviously don’t have five years to wait. Tell us about what the VRC started to do as soon as you learned about the outbreak in Wuhan, China.

Mascola: Sure. It’s a fascinating story. We had been talking with NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and our colleagues about how to prepare for the next pandemic. Pretty high on our list were coronaviruses, having already worked on past outbreaks of SARS and MERS [other respiratory diseases caused by coronaviruses]. So, we studied coronaviruses and focused on the unique spike protein crowning their surfaces. We designed a vaccine that presented the spike protein to the immune system.

Collins: Knowing that the spike protein was likely your antigen, what was your approach to designing the vaccine?

Mascola: Our approach was a nucleic acid-based vaccine. I’m referring to vaccines that are based on genetic material, either DNA or RNA. It’s this type of vaccine that can be moved most rapidly into the clinic for initial testing.

When we learned of the outbreak in Wuhan, we simply accessed the nucleic acid sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Most of the sequence was on a server from Chinese investigators. We looked at the spike sequence and built that into an RNA vaccine. This is called in silico vaccine design. Because of our experience with the original SARS back in the 2000s, we knew its sequence and we knew this approach worked. We simply modified the vaccine design to the sequence of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Literally within days, we started making the vaccine in the lab.

At the same time, we worked with a biotechnology company called Moderna that creates personalized cancer vaccines. From the time the sequence was made available in early January to the start of the first in-human study, it was about 65 days.

Collins: Wow! Has there ever been a vaccine developed in 65 days?

Mascola: I don’t think so. There are a lot of firsts with COVID, and vaccine development is one of them.

Collins: For the volunteers who enrolled in the phase 1 study, what was actually in the syringe?

Mascola: The syringe included messenger RNA (mRNA), the encoded instructions for making a specific protein, in this case the spike protein. The mRNA is formulated in a lipid nanoparticle shell. The reason is mRNA is less stable than DNA, and it doesn’t like to hang around in a test tube where enzymes can break it down. But if one formulates it just right into a nanoparticle, the mRNA is protected. Furthermore, that protective particle allows one to inject it into muscle and facilitates the uptake of the mRNA into the muscle cells. The cells translate the mRNA into spike proteins, and the immune system sees them and mounts a response.

Collins: Do muscle cells know how to take that protein and put it on their cell surfaces, where the immune system can see it?

Mascola: They do if the mRNA is engineered just the right way. We’ve been doing this with DNA for a long time. With mRNA, the advantage is that it just has to get into the cell [not into the nucleus of the cell as it does for DNA]. But it took about a decade of work to figure out how to do nucleotide silencing, which allows the cell to see the mRNA, not destroy it, and actually treat it as a normal piece of mRNA to translate into protein. Once that was figured out, it becomes pretty easy to make any specific vaccine.

Collins: That’s really an amazing part of the science. While it seems like this all happened in a blink of an eye, 65 days, it was built on years of basic science work to understand how cells treat mRNA. What’s the status of the vaccine right now?

Mascola: Early data from the phase 1 study are very encouraging. There’s a manuscript in preparation that should be out shortly showing that the vaccine was safe. It induced a very robust immune response to that spike protein. In particular, we looked for neutralizing antibodies, which are the ones that attach to the spike, blocking the virus from binding to a cell. There’s a general principle in vaccine development: if the immune system generates neutralizing antibodies, that’s a very good sign.

Collins: You’d be the first to say that you’re not done yet. Even though those are good signs, that doesn’t prove that this vaccine will work. What else do you need to know?

Mascola: The only real way to learn if a vaccine works is to test it in people. We break clinical studies into phases 1, 2, and 3. Phase 1 has already been done to evaluate safety. Phase 2 is a larger evaluation of safety and immune response. That’s ongoing and has enrolled 500 or 600 people, which is good. The plan for the phase 3 study will be to start in July. Again, that’s incredibly fast, considering that we didn’t even know this virus existed until January.

Collins: How many people do you need to study in a phase 3 trial?

Mascola: We’re thinking 20,000 or 30,000.

Collins: And half get the vaccine and half get a placebo?

Mascola: Sometimes it can be done differently, but the classic approach is half placebo, half vaccine.

Collins: We’ve been talking about the VRC-Moderna nucleic acid vaccine. But there are others that are coming along pretty quickly. What other strategies are being employed, and what are their timetables?

Mascola: There are many dozens of vaccines under development. The response has been extraordinary by academic groups, biotech companies, pharmaceutical companies, and NIH’s Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) partnership. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much activity in a vaccine space moving ahead at such a rapid clip.

As far as being ready for advanced clinical trials, there are a just handful and they involve different types of vaccines. At least three nucleic acid vaccines are in clinical trials. There are also two vaccines that use proteins, which is a more classic approach.

In addition, there are several vaccines based on a viral vector. To make these, one puts the genes for the spike protein inside an adenovirus, which is an innocuous cold virus, and injects it into muscle. In regard to phase 3 trials, there are maybe three or four vaccines that could be formally in such tests by the fall.

Collins: How is it possible to do this so much more rapidly than in the past, without imposing risks?

Mascola: It’s a really important question, Francis. A number of things are being done in parallel, and that wouldn’t usually be the case. We can get a vaccine into a first-in-human study much more quickly because of time-saving technologies.

But the real important point is that for the phase 3 trial, there are no timesavers. One must enroll 30,000 people and watch them over months in a very rigorous, placebo-controlled environment. The NIH has stood up what’s called a Data Safety Monitoring Board for all the trials. That’s an independent group of investigators that will review all vaccine trial data periodically. They can see what the data are showing: Should the trial be stopped early because the vaccine is working? Is there a safety signal that raises concern?

While the phase 3 trial is going on, the U.S. government also will be funding large-scale manufacture of the vaccine. Traditionally, you would do the vaccine trial, wait until it’s all done, and analyze the data. If it worked, you’d build a vaccine plant to make enough material, which takes two or three years, and then go to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for regulatory approval.

Everything here is being done in parallel. So, if the vaccine works, it’s already in supply. And we have been engaging the FDA to get real-time feedback. That does save a lot of time.

Collins: Is it possible that we’ll manufacture a whole lot of doses that may have to be thrown out if the vaccine doesn’t work?

Mascola: It certainly is possible. One would like to think that for coronaviruses, vaccines are likely to work, in part because the natural immune response clears them. People get quite sick, but eventually the immune system clears the virus. So, if we can prime it with a vaccine, there is reason to believe vaccines should work.

Collins: If the vaccine does work, will this be for lifelong prevention of COVID-19? Or will this be like the flu, where the virus keeps changing and new versions of the vaccine are needed every year?

Mascola: From what we know about coronaviruses, we think it’s likely COVID-19 is not like the flu. Coronaviruses do have some mutation rate, but the data suggest it’s not as rapid as influenza. If we’re fortunate, the vaccine won’t need to be changed. Still, there’s the matter of whether the immunity lasts for a year, five years, or 10 years. That we don’t know without more data.

Collins: Do we know for sure that somebody who has had COVID-19 can’t get it again a few months later?

Mascola: We don’t know yet. To get the answer, we must do natural history studies, where we follow people who’ve been infected and see if their risk of getting the infection is much lower. Although classically in virology, if your immune system shows neutralizing antibodies to a virus, it’s very likely you have some level of immunity.

What’s a bit tricky is there are people who get very mild symptoms of COVID-19. Does that mean their immune system only saw a little bit of the viral antigen and didn’t respond very robustly? We’re not sure that everyone who gets an infection is equally protected. That’s going to require a natural history study, which will take about a year of follow-up to get the answers.

Collins: Let’s go back to trials that need to happen this summer. You talked about 20,000 to 30,000 people needing to volunteer just for one vaccine. Whom do you want to volunteer?

Mascola: The idea with a phase 3 trial is to have a broad spectrum of participation. To conduct a trial of 30,000 people is an enormous logistical operation, but it has been done for the rotavirus and HPV vaccines. When you get to phase 3, you don’t want to enroll just healthy adults. You want to enroll people who are representative of the diverse population that you want to protect.

Collins: Do you want to enrich for high-risk populations? They’re the ones for whom we hope the vaccine will provide greatest benefit: for example, older people with chronic illnesses, African Americans, and Hispanics.

Mascola: Absolutely. We want to make sure that we can feel comfortable to recommend the vaccine to at-risk populations.

Collins: Some people have floated another possibility. They ask why do we need expensive, long-term clinical trials with tens of thousands of people? Couldn’t we do a human challenge trial in which we give the vaccine to some healthy, young volunteers, wait a couple of weeks, and then intentionally expose them to SARS-CoV-2. If they don’t get sick, we’re done. Are challenge studies a good idea for COVID-19?

Mascola: Not right now. First, one has to make a challenge stock of the SARS-CoV-2 that’s not too pathogenic. We don’t want to make something in the lab that causes people to get severe pneumonia. Also, for challenge studies, it would be preferable to have a very effective small drug or antibody treatment on hand. If someone were to get sick, you could take care of the infection pretty readily with the treatments. We don’t have curative treatments, so the current thinking is we’re not there yet for COVID-19 challenge studies [1]. If you look at our accelerated timeline, formal vaccine trials still may be the fastest and safest way to get the answers.

Collins: I’m glad you’re doing it the other way, John. It’s going to take a lot of effort. You’re going to have to go somewhere where there is still ongoing spread, otherwise you won’t know if the vaccine works or not. That’s going to be tricky.

Mascola: Yes. How do we know where to test the vaccine? We are using predictive analytics, which is just a fancy way of saying that we are trying to predict where in the country there will be ongoing transmission. If we can get really good at it, we’ll have real-time data to say transmission is ongoing in a certain area. We can vaccinate in that community, while also possibly protecting people most at risk.

Collins: John, this conversation has been really informative. What’s your most optimistic view about when we might have a COVID-19 vaccine that’s safe and effective enough to distribute to the public?

Mascola: An optimistic scenario would be that we get an answer in the phase 3 trial towards the end of this year. We have scaled up the production in parallel, so the vaccine should be available in great supply. We still must allow for the FDA to review the data and be comfortable with licensing the vaccine. Then we must factor in a little time for distributing and recommending that people get the vaccine.

Collins: Well, it’s wonderful to have someone with your skills, experience, and vision taking such a leading role, along with your many colleagues at the Vaccine Research Center. People like Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, and all the others who are a part of this amazing team that you’ve put together, overseen by Dr. Fauci.

While there is still a ways to go, we can take pride in how far we have come since this virus emerged just about six months ago. In my 27 years at NIH, I’ve never seen anything quite like this. There’s been a willingness among people to set aside all kinds of other concerns. They’ve gathered around the same table, worked on vaccine design and implementation, and gotten out there in the real world to launch clinical trials.

John, thank you for what you are doing 24/7 to make this kind of progress possible. We’re all watching, hoping, and praying that this will turn out to be the answer that people desperately need after such a terribly difficult time so far in 2020. I believe 2021 will be a very different kind of experience, largely because of the vaccine science that we’ve been talking about today.

Mascola: Thank you so much, Francis. And thanks for recognizing all the people behind the scenes who are making this happen. They’re working really hard!


[1] Accelerating Development of SARS-CoV-2 Vaccines—The Role for Controlled Human Infection Models. Deming ME, Michael, NL, Robb M, Cohen MS, Neuzil KM. N Engl J Med. 2020 July 1. [Epub ahead of print].


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

John R. Mascola (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Novel Vaccine Technologies for the 21st Century. Mascola JR, Fauci AS. Nat Rev Immunol. 2020 Feb;20(2):87-88.

Vaccine Research Center (NIAID/NIH)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV)

Discussing the Need for Reliable Antibody Testing for COVID-19

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At Home with Ned Sharpless

There’s been a great deal of discussion about whether people who recover from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), have neutralizing antibodies in their bloodstream to guard against another infection. Lots of interesting data continue to emerge, including a recent preprint from researchers at Sherman Abrams Laboratory, Brooklyn, NY [1]. They tested 11,092 people for antibodies in May at a local urgent care facility and found nearly half had long-lasting IgG antibodies, a sign of exposure to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19. The researchers also found a direct correlation between the severity of a person’s symptoms and their levels of IgG antibodies.

This study and others remind us of just how essential antibody tests will be going forward to learn more about this challenging pandemic. These assays must have high sensitivity and specificity, meaning there would be few false negatives and false positives, to tell us more about a person’s exposure to SARS-CoV-2. While there are some good tests out there, not all are equally reliable.

Recently, I had a chance to discuss COVID-19 antibody tests, also called serology tests, with Dr. Norman “Ned” Sharpless, Director of NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). Among his many talents, Dr. Sharpless is an expert on antibody testing for COVID-19. You might wonder how NCI got involved in COVID-19 testing. Well, you’re going to find out. Our conversation took place while videoconferencing, with him connecting from North Carolina and me linking in from my home in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:

Collins: Ned, thanks for joining me. Maybe we should start with the basics. What are antibodies anyway?

Sharpless: Antibodies are proteins that your body makes as part of the learned immune system. It’s the immunity that responds to a bacterium or a virus. In general, if you draw someone’s blood after an infection and test it for the presence of these antibodies, you can often know whether they’ve been infected. Antibodies can hang around for quite a while. How long exactly is a topic of great interest, especially in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we think most people infected with coronavirus will make antibodies at a reasonably high level, or titer, in their peripheral blood within a couple of weeks of the infection.

Collins: What do antibodies tell us about exposure to a virus?

Sharpless: A lot of people with coronavirus are infected without ever knowing it. You can use these antibody assays to try and tell how many people in an area have been infected, that is, you can do a so-called seroprevalence survey.

You could also potentially use these antibody assays to predict someone’s resistance to future infection. If you cleared the infection and established immunity to it, you might be resistant to future infection. That might be very useful information. Maybe you could make a decision about how to go out in the community. So, that part is of intense interest as well, although less scientifically sound at the moment.

Collins: I have a 3D-printed model of SARS-CoV-2 on my desk. It’s sort of a spherical virus that has spike proteins on its surface. Do the antibodies interact with the virus in some specific ways?

Sharpless: Yes, antibodies are shaped like the letter Y. They have two binding domains at the head of each Y that will recognize something about the virus. We find antibodies in the peripheral blood that recognize either the virus nucleocapsid, which is the structural protein on the inside; or the spikes, which stick out and give coronavirus its name. We know now that about 99 percent of people who get infected with the virus will develop antibodies eventually. Most of those antibodies that you can detect to the spike proteins will be neutralizing, which means they can kill the virus in a laboratory experiment. We know from other viruses that, generally, having neutralizing antibodies is a promising sign if you want to be immune to that virus in the future.

Collins: Are COVID-19 antibodies protective? Are there reports of people who’ve gotten better, but then were re-exposed and got sick again?

Sharpless: It’s controversial. People can shed the virus’s nucleic acid [genetic material], for weeks or even more than a month after they get better. So, if they have another nucleic acid test it could be positive, even though they feel better. Often, those people aren’t making a lot of live virus, so it may be that they never stopped shedding the virus. Or it may be that they got re-infected. It’s hard to understand what that means exactly. If you think about how many people worldwide have had COVID-19, the number of legitimate possible reinfection cases is in the order of a handful. So, it’s a pretty rare event, if it happens at all.

Collins: For somebody who does have the antibodies, who apparently was previously infected, do they need to stop worrying about getting exposed? Can they can do whatever they want and stop worrying about distancing and wearing masks?

Sharpless: No, not yet. To use antibodies to predict who’s likely to be immune, you’ve got to know two things.

First: can the tests actually measure antibodies reliably? I think there are assays available to the public that are sufficiently good for asking this question, with an important caveat. If you’re trying to detect something that’s really rare in a population, then any test is going to have limitations. But if you’re trying to detect something that’s more common, as the virus was during the recent outbreak in Manhattan, I think the tests are up to the task.

Second: does the appearance of an antibody in the peripheral blood mean that you’re actually immune or you’re just less likely to get the virus? We don’t know the answer to that yet.

Collins: Let’s be optimistic, because it sounds like there’s some evidence to support the idea that people who develop these antibodies are protected against infection. It also sounds like the tests, at least some of them, are pretty good. But if there is protection, how long would you expect it to last? Is this one of those things where you’re all set for life? Or is this going to be something where somebody’s had it and might get it again two or three years from now, because the immunity faded away?

Sharpless: Since we have no direct experience with this virus over time, it’s hard to answer. The potential for this cell-based humoral immunity to last for a while is there. For some viruses, you have a long-lasting antibody protection after infection; for other viruses, not so much.

So that’s the unknown thing. Is immunity going to last for a while? Of course, if one were to bring up the topic of vaccines, that’s very important to know, because you would want to know how often one would have to give that vaccine, even under optimal circumstances.

Collins: Yes, our conversation about immunity is really relevant to the vaccines we’re trying to develop right now. Will these vaccines be protective for long periods of time? We sure hope so, but we’ve got to look carefully at the issue. Let’s come back, though, to the actual performance of the tests. The NCI has been right in the middle of trying to do this kind of validation. How did that happen, and how did that experience go?

Sharpless: Yes, I think one might ask: why is the National Cancer Institute testing antibody kits for the FDA? It is unusual, but certainly not unheard of, for NCI to take up problems like this during a time of a national emergency. During the HIV era, NCI scientists, along with others, identified the virus and did one of the first successful compound screens to find the drug AZT, one of the first effective anti-HIV therapies.

NCI’s Frederick National Lab also has a really good serology lab that had been predominantly working on human papillomavirus (HPV). When the need arose for serologic testing a few months ago, we pivoted that lab to a coronavirus serology lab. It took us a little while, but eventually we rounded up everything you needed to create positive and negative reference panels for antibody testing.

At that time, the FDA had about 200 manufacturers making serology tests that hoped for approval to sell. The FDA wanted some performance testing of those assays by a dispassionate third party. The Frederick National Lab seemed like the ideal place, and the manufacturers started sending us kits. I think we’ve probably tested on the order of 20 so far. We give those data back to the FDA for regulatory decision making. They’re putting all the data online.

Collins: How did it look? Are these all good tests or were there some clunkers?

Sharpless: There were some clunkers. But we were pleased to see that some of the tests appear to be really good, both in our hands and those of other groups, and have been used in thousands of patients.

There are a few tests that have sensitivities that are pretty high and specificities well over 99 percent. The Roche assay has a 99.8 percent specificity claimed on thousands of patients, and for the Mt. Sinai assay developed and tested by our academic collaborators in a panel of maybe 4,000 patients, they’re not sure they’ve ever had a false positive. So, there are some assays out there that are good.

Collins: There’s been talk about how there will soon be monoclonal antibodies directed against SARS-CoV-2. How are those derived?

Sharpless: They’re picked, generally, for appearing to have neutralizing activity. When a person makes antibodies, they don’t make one antibody to a pathogen. They make a whole family of them. And those can be individually isolated, so you can know which antibodies made by a convalescent individual really have virus-neutralizing capacity. That portion of the antibody that recognizes the virus can be engineered into a manufacturing platform to make monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal means one kind of antibody. That approach has worked for other infectious diseases and is an interesting idea here too.

Collins: I can say a bit about that, because we are engaged in a partnership with industry and FDA called Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV). One of the hottest ideas right now is monoclonal antibodies, and we’re in the process of devising a master protocol, one for outpatients and one for inpatients.

Janet Woodcock of Operation Warp Speed tells me 21 companies are developing monoclonal antibodies. While doing these trials, we’d love to do comparisons, which is why it’s good to have an organization like ACTIV to bring everybody together, making sure you’re using the same endpoints and the same laboratory measures. I think that, maybe even by late summer, we might have some results. For people who are looking at what’s the next most-hopeful therapeutic option for people who are really sick with COVID-19, so far we have remdesivir. It helps, but it’s not a home run. Maybe monoclonal antibodies will be the next thing that really gives a big boost in survival. That would be the hope.

Ned, let me ask you one final question about herd, or group, immunity. One hears a bit about that in terms of how we are all going to get past this COVID-19 pandemic. What’s that all about?

Sharpless: Herd immunity is when a significant portion of the population is immune to a pathogen, then that pathogen will die out in the population. There just aren’t enough susceptible people left to infect. What the threshold is for herd immunity depends on how infectious the virus is. For a highly infectious virus, like measles, maybe up to 90 percent of the population must be immune to get herd immunity. Whereas for other less-infectious viruses, it may only be 50 percent of the population that needs to be immune to get herd immunity. It’s a theoretical thing that makes some assumptions, such as that everybody’s health status is the same and the population mixes perfectly every day. Neither of those are true.

How well that actual predictive number will work for coronavirus is unknown. The other thing that’s interesting is a lot of that work has been based on vaccines, such as what percentage do you have to vaccinate to get herd immunity? But if you get to herd immunity by having people get infected, so-called natural herd immunity, that may be different. You would imagine the most susceptible people get infected soonest, and so the heterogeneity of the population might change the threshold calculation.

The short answer is nobody wants to find out. No one wants to get to herd immunity for COVID-19 through natural herd immunity. The way you’d like to get there is with a vaccine that you then could apply to a large portion of the population, and have them acquire immunity in a more safe and controlled manner. Should we have an efficacious vaccine, this question will loom large: how many people do we need to vaccinate to really try and protect vulnerable populations?

Collins: That’s going to be a really critical question for the coming months, as the first large-scale vaccine trials get underway in July, and we start to see how they work and how successful and safe they are. But I’m also worried seeing some reports that 1 out of 5 Americans say they wouldn’t take a vaccine. It would be truly a tragedy if we have a safe and effective vaccine, but we don’t get enough uptake to achieve herd immunity. So, we’ve got some work to do on all fronts, that’s for sure.

Ned, I want to thank you for sharing all this information about antibodies and serologies and other things, as well as thank you for your hard work with all your amazing NCI colleagues.

Sharpless: Thanks for having me.

[1] SARS-CoV-2 IgG Antibody Responses in New York City. Reifer J, Hayum N, Heszkel B, Klagsbald I, Streva VA. medRxiv. Preprint posted May 26, 2020.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

At NCI, A Robust and Rapid Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Norman E. Sharpless. Cancer Currents Blog. April 17, 2020 (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Serological Testing for SARS-CoV-2 Antibodies (American Medical Association, Chicago)

COVID-19 Antibody Testing Primer (Infectious Diseases Society of America, Arlington, VA)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (NIH)

3D Printing the Novel Coronavirus

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Credit: 3D Print Exchange, NIAID, NIH

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has truly been an all-hands-on-deck moment for the nation. Among the responders are many with NIH affiliations, who are lending their expertise to deploy new and emerging technologies to address myriad research challenges. That’s certainly the case for the dedicated team from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the NIH 3D Print Exchange (3DPX), Rockville, MD.

A remarkable example of the team’s work is this 3D-printed physical model of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This model shows the viral surface (blue) and the spike proteins studded proportionally to the right size and shape. These proteins are essential for SARS-CoV-2 to attach to human cells and infect them. Here, the spike proteins are represented in their open, active form (orange) that’s capable of attaching to a human cell, as well as in their closed, inactive form (red).

The model is about 5 inches in diameter. It takes more than 5 hours to print using an “ink” of thin layers of a gypsum plaster-based powder fused with a colored binder solution. When completed, the plaster model is coated in epoxy for strength and a glossy, ceramic-like finish. For these models, NIAID uses commercial-grade, full-color 3D printers. However, the same 3D files can be used in any type of 3D printer, including “desktop” models available on the consumer market.

Darrell Hurt and Meghan McCarthy lead the 3DPX team. Kristen Browne, Phil Cruz, and Victor Starr Kramer, the team members who helped to produce this remarkable model, created it as part of a collaboration with the imaging team at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), Hamilton, MT.

The RML’s Electron Microscopy Unit captured the microscopic 3D images of the virus, which was cultured from one of the first COVID-19 patients in the country. The unit handed off these and other data to its in-house visual specialist to convert into a preliminary 3D model. The model was then forwarded to the 3DPX team in Maryland to colorize and optimize in preparation for 3D printing.

This model is especially unique because it’s based exclusively on SARS-CoV-2 data. For example, the model is assembled from data showing that the virus is frequently oval, not perfectly round. The spike proteins also aren’t evenly spaced, but pop up more randomly from the surface. Another nice feature of 3D printing is the models can be constantly updated to incorporate the latest structural discoveries.

That’s why 3D models are such an excellent teaching tools to share among scientists and the public. Folks can hold the plaster virus and closely examine its structure. In fact, the team recently printed out a model and delivered it to me for exactly this educational purpose.

In addition to this complete model, the researchers also are populating the online 3D print exchange with atomic-level structures of the various SARS-CoV-2 proteins that have been deposited by researchers around the world into protein and electron microscopy databanks. The number of these structures and plans currently stands at well over 100—and counting.

As impressive as this modeling work is, 3DPX has found yet another essential way to aid in the COVID-19 fight. In March, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a public-private partnership with the NIH 3D Print Exchange, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Innovation Ecosystem, and the non-profit America Makes, Youngstown, OH [1]. The partnership will develop a curated collection of designs for 3D-printable personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as other necessary medical devices that are in short supply due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can explore the partnership’s growing collection of COVID-19-related medical supplies online. And, if you happen to have a 3D printer handy, you could even try making them for yourself.


[1] FDA Efforts to Connect Manufacturers and Health Care Entities: The FDA, Department of Veterans Affairs, National Institutes of Health, and America Makes Form a COVID-19 response Public-Private Partnership (Food and Drug Administration)


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

NIH 3D Print Exchange (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH, Rockville, MD)

Rocky Mountain Laboratories (NIAID/NIH, Hamilton, MT)

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Innovation Ecosystem (Washington, D.C.)

America Makes (Youngstown, OH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Study Finds Nearly Everyone Who Recovers From COVID-19 Makes Coronavirus Antibodies

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Credit: NIH

There’s been a lot of excitement about the potential of antibody-based blood tests, also known as serology tests, to help contain the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. There’s also an awareness that more research is needed to determine when—or even if—people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, produce antibodies that may protect them from re-infection.

A recent study in Nature Medicine brings much-needed clarity, along with renewed enthusiasm, to efforts to develop and implement widescale antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2 [1]. Antibodies are blood proteins produced by the immune system to fight foreign invaders like viruses, and may help to ward off future attacks by those same invaders.

In their study of blood drawn from 285 people hospitalized with severe COVID-19, researchers in China, led by Ai-Long Huang, Chongqing Medical University, found that all had developed SARS-CoV-2 specific antibodies within two to three weeks of their first symptoms. Although more follow-up work is needed to determine just how protective these antibodies are and for how long, these findings suggest that the immune systems of people who survive COVID-19 have been be primed to recognize SARS-CoV-2 and possibly thwart a second infection.

Specifically, the researchers determined that nearly all of the 285 patients studied produced a type of antibody called IgM, which is the first antibody that the body makes when fighting an infection. Though only about 40 percent produced IgM in the first week after onset of COVID-19, that number increased steadily to almost 95 percent two weeks later. All of these patients also produced a type of antibody called IgG. While IgG often appears a little later after acute infection, it has the potential to confer sustained immunity.

To confirm their results, the researchers turned to another group of 69 people diagnosed with COVID-19. The researchers collected blood samples from each person upon admission to the hospital and every three days thereafter until discharge. The team found that, with the exception of one woman and her daughter, the patients produced specific antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 within 20 days of their first symptoms of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, innovative efforts are being made on the federal level to advance COVID-19 testing. The NIH just launched the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) Initiative to support a variety of research activities aimed at improving detection of the virus. As I recently highlighted on this blog, one key component of RADx is a “shark tank”-like competition to encourage science and engineering’s most inventive minds to develop rapid, easy-to-use technologies to test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2.

On the serology testing side, the NIH’s National Cancer Institute has been checking out kits that are designed to detect antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 and have found mixed results. In response, the Food and Drug Administration just issued its updated policy on antibody tests for COVID-19. This guidance sets forth precise standards for laboratories and commercial manufacturers that will help to speed the availability of high-quality antibody tests, which in turn will expand the capacity for rapid and widespread testing in the United States.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that there are two different types of SARS-CoV-2 tests. Those that test for the presence of viral nucleic acid or protein are used to identify people who are acutely infected and should be immediately quarantined. Tests for IgM and/or IgG antibodies to the virus, if well-validated, indicate a person has previously been infected with COVID-19 and is now potentially immune. Two very different types of tests—two very different meanings.

There’s still a way to go with both virus and antibody testing for COVID-19. But as this study and others begin to piece together the complex puzzle of antibody-mediated immunity, it will be possible to learn more about the human body’s response to SARS-CoV-2 and home in on our goal of achieving safe, effective, and sustained protection against this devastating disease.


[1] Antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 in patients with COVID-19. Long QX, Huang AI, et al. Nat Med. 2020 Apr 29. [Epub ahead of print]


Coronaviruses (NIH)

NIH Begins Study to Quantify Undetected Cases of Coronavirus Infection,” NIH News Release, April 10, 2020.

NIH mobilizes national innovation initiative for COVID-19 diagnostics,” NIH News Release, April 29, 2020.

Policy for Coronavirus Disease-2019 Tests During the Public Health Emergency (Revised), May 2020 (Food and Drug Administration)

Rising to the COVID-19 Challenge: Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx)

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NIH Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) Initiative for COVID-19
Credit: NIH

Step into any major medical center, and you will see the amazing power of technology at work. From X-rays to functional MRIs, blood typing to DNA sequencing, heart-lung machines to robotic surgery, the progress that biomedical technology has made over the past century or so stands as a testament to human ingenuity—and its ability to rise to the all-important challenge of saving lives and improving health.

Today, our nation is in the midst of trying to contain a most formidable health threat: the global coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. I’m convinced that biomedical technology has a vital role to play in this urgent effort, which is why the NIH today launched the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) Initiative.

Fueled by a bold $1.5 billion investment made possible by federal stimulus funding, RADx is an urgent call for science and engineering’s most inventive and visionary minds—from the basement to the board room—to develop rapid, easy-to-use testing technologies for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. To achieve this, NIH will work closely with our colleagues at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration.

If all goes well, RADx aims to support innovative technologies that will make millions more rapid SARS-CoV-2 tests available to Americans by late summer or fall. Such widespread testing, which will facilitate the speedy identification and quarantine of infected individuals and their contacts, will likely be a critical component of making it possible for Americans to get safely back into public spaces, including returning to work and school.

For history buffs and tech geeks, the RADx acronym might ring a bell. During the World War II era, it was the brainstorming of MIT’s “Rad Lab” that gave birth to radar—a groundbreaking technology that, for the first time, enabled humans to use radio waves to “see” planes, storm systems, and many other things. Radar played such a valuable role in finding bombing targets, directing gunfire, and locating enemy aircraft, ships, and artillery that some have argued that this technology actually won the war for the U.S. and its Allies.

As for NIH’s RADx, our aim is to speed the development and commercialization of tests that can rapidly “see” if people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 with very high sensitivity and specificity, meaning there would be few false negatives and false positives. A key part of this effort, which started today, will be a national technology development competition that’s open to all comers. In this competition, which begins a bit like a “shark tank,” participants will vie for an ultimate share of an approximately $500 million fund that will be awarded to help advance the most-promising testing technologies.

The proposals will undergo an initial review for technical, clinical, commercial, and regulatory issues. For example, could the testing technology be easily scaled up? Would it provide clear advantages over existing approaches? And would the U.S. health-care system realistically be able to adopt the technology rapidly? If selected, the proposals will then enter a three-phase process that will run into summer. Each development team will receive its own initial budget, deadlines, and set of deliverables. Competitors must also work collaboratively with an assigned expert and utilize associated web-based tools.

As you see in the graphic above, each phase will whittle down the competition. Those testing technologies that succeed in making it to Phase 2 will receive an appropriate budget to enable full clinical deployment on an accelerated timeline. They will also be matched with technical, business, and manufacturing experts to boost their chances of success.

Of course, not all technologies will enter the competition at the same stages of development. Those that are already relatively far along will be “fast tracked” to a phase that corresponds with their place in the commercialization process. Our hope is that the winning technologies will feature patient- and user-friendly designs, mobile-device integration, affordable cost, and increased accessibility, for use at the point of care (or even at home).

To assist competitors in their efforts to accomplish these bold goals, RADx will expand the Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network, which was established several years ago by NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). The network supports hundreds of investigators through five technology hubs at: Emory University/Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester; and the Consortia for Improving Medicine with Innovation & Technology at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

RADx is focused on diagnostic testing, but NIH is also intensely engaged in developing safe, effective therapies and vaccines for COVID-19. One innovative effort, called Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV), is a public-private partnership that aims to speed the development of ways to treat and prevent this disease that’s caused so much suffering and death around the globe.

So, to the U.S. science and engineering community, I have these words: Let’s get going—our nation has never needed your skills more!


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

NIH mobilizes national innovation initiative for COVID-19 diagnostics, NIH news release, April 29, 2020

Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Biotechnology/NIH)

NIH to launch public-private partnership to speed COVID-19 vaccine and treatment options, NIH news release, April 17, 2020.

We Need More COVID-19 Tests. We Propose a ‘Shark Tank’ to Get There, Lamar Alexander, Roy Blunt. Washington Post, April 20, 2020.

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