Celebrating the Gift of COVID-19 Vaccines
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
The winter holidays are traditionally a time of gift-giving. As fatiguing as 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have been, science has stepped up this year to provide humankind with a pair of truly hopeful gifts: the first two COVID-19 vaccines.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech, enabling distribution to begin to certain high-risk groups just three days later. More recently, the FDA granted an EUA to a COVID-19 vaccine from the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA. This messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, which is part of a new approach to vaccination, was co-developed by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The EUA is based on data showing the vaccine is safe and 94.5 percent effective at protecting people from infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Those data on the Moderna vaccine come from a clinical trial of 30,000 individuals, who generously participated to help others. We can’t thank those trial participants enough for this gift. The distribution of millions of Moderna vaccine doses is expected to begin this week.
It’s hard to put into words just how remarkable these accomplishments are in the history of science. A vaccine development process that used to take many years, often decades, has been condensed to about 11 months. Just last January, researchers started out with a previously unknown virus and we now have not just one, but two, vaccines that will be administered to millions of Americans before year’s end. And the accomplishments don’t end there—several other types of COVID-19 vaccines are also on the way.
It’s important to recognize that this couldn’t have happened without the efforts of many scientists working tirelessly behind the scenes for many years prior to the pandemic. Among those who deserve tremendous credit are Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, John Mascola, and other members of the amazing team at the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
When word of SARS-CoV-2 emerged, Corbett, Graham, and other NIAID researchers had already been studying other coronaviruses for years, including those responsible for earlier outbreaks of respiratory disease. So, when word came that this was a new coronavirus outbreak, they were ready to take action. It helped that they had paid special attention to the spike proteins on the surface of coronaviruses, which have turned out to be the main focus the COVID-19 vaccines now under development.
The two vaccines currently authorized for administration in the United States work in a unique way. Their centerpiece is a small, non-infectious snippet of mRNA. Our cells constantly produce thousands of mRNAs, which provide the instructions needed to make proteins. When someone receives an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, it tells the person’s own cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The person’s immune system then recognizes the viral spike protein as foreign and produces antibodies to eliminate it.
This vaccine-spurred encounter trains the human immune system to remember the spike protein. So, if an actual SARS-CoV-2 virus tries to infect a vaccinated person weeks or months later, his or her immune system will be ready to fend it off. To produce the most vigorous and durable immunity against the virus, people will need to get two shots of mRNA vaccine, which are spaced several weeks to a month apart, depending on the vaccine.
Some have raised concerns on social media that mRNA vaccines might alter the DNA genome of someone being vaccinated. But that’s not possible, since this mRNA doesn’t enter the nucleus of the cell where DNA is located. Instead, the vaccine mRNAs stay in the outer part of the cell (the cytoplasm). What’s more, after being transcribed into protein just one time, the mRNA quickly degrades. Others have expressed concerns about whether the vaccine could cause COVID-19. That is not a risk because there’s no whole virus involved, just the coding instructions for the non-infectious spike protein.
An important advantage of mRNA is that it’s easy for researchers to synthesize once they know the nucleic acid sequence of a target viral protein. So, the gift of mRNA vaccines is one that will surely keep on giving. This new technology can now be used to speed the development of future vaccines. After the emergence of the disease-causing SARS, MERS, and now SARS-CoV-2 viruses, it would not be surprising if there are other coronavirus health threats in our future. Corbett and her colleagues are hoping to design a universal vaccine that can battle all of them. In addition, mRNA vaccines may prove effective for fighting future pandemics caused by other infectious agents and for preventing many other conditions, such as cancer and HIV.
Though vaccines are unquestionably our best hope for getting past the COVID-19 pandemic, public surveys indicate that some people are uneasy about accepting this disease-preventing gift. Some have even indicated they will refuse to take the vaccine. Healthy skepticism is a good thing, but decisions like this ought to be based on weighing the evidence of benefit versus risk. The results of the Pfizer and Moderna trials, all released for complete public scrutiny, indicate the potential benefits are high and the risks, low. Despite the impressive speed at which the new COVID-19 vaccines were developed, they have undergone and continue to undergo a rigorous process to generate all the data needed by the FDA to determine their long-term safety and effectiveness.
Unfortunately, the gift of COVID-19 vaccines comes too late for the more than 313,000 Americans who have died from complications of COVID-19, and many others who’ve had their lives disrupted and may have to contend with long-term health consequences related to COVID-19. The vaccines did arrive in record time, but all of us wish they could somehow have arrived even sooner to avert such widespread suffering and heartbreak.
It will be many months before all Americans who are willing to get a vaccine can be immunized. We need 75-80 percent of Americans to receive vaccines in order to attain the so-called “herd immunity” needed to drive SARS-CoV-2 away and allow us all to get back to a semblance of normal life.
Meanwhile, we all have a responsibility to do everything possible to block the ongoing transmission of this dangerous virus. Each of us needs to follow the three W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands often.
When your chance for immunization comes, please roll up your sleeve and accept the potentially life-saving gift of a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, I just got my first shot of the Moderna vaccine today along with NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and some front-line healthcare workers at the NIH Clinical Center. Accepting this gift is our best chance to put this pandemic behind us, as we look forward to a better new year.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)
Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)
Moderna (Cambridge, MA)
Pfizer (New York, NY)
BioNTech (Mainz, Germany)
Protein Mapping Study Reveals Valuable Clues for COVID-19 Drug Development
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
One way to fight COVID-19 is with drugs that directly target SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. That’s the strategy employed by remdesivir, the only antiviral drug currently authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19. Another promising strategy is drugs that target the proteins within human cells that the virus needs to infect, multiply, and spread.
With the aim of developing such protein-targeted antiviral drugs, a large, international team of researchers, funded in part by the NIH, has precisely and exhaustively mapped all of the interactions that take place between SARS-CoV-2 proteins and the human proteins found within infected host cells. They did the same for the related coronaviruses: SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which ended in 2004; and MERS-CoV, the virus that causes the now-rare Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
The goal, as reported in the journal Science, was to use these protein “interactomes” to uncover vulnerabilities shared by all three coronaviruses. The hope is that the newfound knowledge about these shared proteins—and the pathways to which they belong—will inform efforts to develop new kinds of broad-spectrum antiviral therapeutics for use in the current and future coronavirus outbreaks.
Facilitated by the Quantitative Biosciences Institute Research Group, the team, which included David E. Gordon and Nevan Krogan, University of California, San Francisco, and hundreds of other scientists from around the world, successfully mapped nearly 400 protein-protein interactions between SARS-CoV-2 and human proteins.
You can see one of these interactions in the video above. The video starts out with an image of the Orf9b protein of SARS-CoV-2, which normally consists of two linked molecules (blue and orange). But researchers discovered that Orf9b dissociates into a single molecule (orange) when it interacts with the human protein TOM70 (teal). Through detailed structural analysis using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), the team went on to predict that this interaction may disrupt a key interaction between TOM70 and another human protein called HSP90.
While further study is needed to understand all the details and their implications, it suggests that this interaction may alter important aspects of the human immune response, including blocking interferon signals that are crucial for sounding the alarm to prevent serious illness. While there is no drug immediately available to target Orf9b or TOM70, the findings point to this interaction as a potentially valuable target for treating COVID-19 and other diseases caused by coronaviruses.
This is just one intriguing example out of 389 interactions between SARS-CoV-2 and human proteins uncovered in the new study. The researchers also identified 366 interactions between human and SARS-CoV-1 proteins and 296 for MERS-CoV. They were especially interested in shared interactions that take place between certain human proteins and the corresponding proteins in all three coronaviruses.
To learn more about the significance of these protein-protein interactions, the researchers conducted a series of studies to find out how disrupting each of the human proteins influences SARS-CoV-2’s ability to infect human cells. These studies narrowed the list to 73 human proteins that the virus depends on to replicate.
Among them were the receptor for an inflammatory signaling molecule called IL-17, which has been suggested as an indicator of COVID-19 severity. Two other human proteins—PGES-2 and SIGMAR1—were of particular interest because they are targets of existing drugs, including the anti-inflammatory indomethacin for PGES-2 and antipsychotics like haloperidol for SIGMAR1.
To connect the molecular-level data to existing clinical information for people with COVID-19, the researchers looked to medical billing data for nearly 740,000 Americans treated for COVID-19. They then zeroed in on those individuals who also happened to have been treated with drugs targeting PGES-2 or SIGMAR1. And the results were quite striking.
They found that COVID-19 patients taking indomethacin were less likely than those taking an anti-inflammatory that doesn’t target PGES-2 to require treatment at a hospital. Similarly, COVID-19 patients taking antipsychotic drugs like haloperidol that target SIGMAR1 were half as likely as those taking other types of antipsychotic drugs to require mechanical ventilation.
More research is needed before we can think of testing these or similar drugs against COVID-19 in human clinical trials. Yet these findings provide a remarkable demonstration of how basic molecular and structural biological findings can be combined with clinical data to yield valuable new clues for treating COVID-19 and other viral illnesses, perhaps by repurposing existing drugs. Not only is NIH-supported basic science essential for addressing the challenges of the current pandemic, it is building a strong foundation of fundamental knowledge that will make us better prepared to deal with infectious disease threats in the future.
 Comparative host-coronavirus protein interaction networks reveal pan-viral disease mechanisms. Gordon DE et al. Science. 2020 Oct 15:eabe9403.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Krogan Lab (University of California, San Francisco)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Immune T Cells May Offer Lasting Protection Against COVID-19
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Much of the study on the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has focused on the production of antibodies. But, in fact, immune cells known as memory T cells also play an important role in the ability of our immune systems to protect us against many viral infections, including—it now appears—COVID-19.
An intriguing new study of these memory T cells suggests they might protect some people newly infected with SARS-CoV-2 by remembering past encounters with other human coronaviruses. This might potentially explain why some people seem to fend off the virus and may be less susceptible to becoming severely ill with COVID-19.
The findings, reported in the journal Nature, come from the lab of Antonio Bertoletti at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore . Bertoletti is an expert in viral infections, particularly hepatitis B. But, like so many researchers around the world, his team has shifted their focus recently to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bertoletti’s team recognized that many factors could help to explain how a single virus can cause respiratory, circulatory, and other symptoms that vary widely in their nature and severity—as we’ve witnessed in this pandemic. One of those potential factors is prior immunity to other, closely related viruses.
SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a large family of coronaviruses, six of which were previously known to infect humans. Four of them are responsible for the common cold. The other two are more dangerous: SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which ended in 2004; and MERS-CoV, the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
All six previously known coronaviruses spark production of both antibodies and memory T cells. In addition, studies of immunity to SARS-CoV-1 have shown that T cells stick around for many years longer than acquired antibodies. So, Bertoletti’s team set out to gain a better understanding of T cell immunity against the novel coronavirus.
The researchers gathered blood samples from 36 people who’d recently recovered from mild to severe COVID-19. They focused their attention on T cells (including CD4 helper and CD8 cytotoxic, both of which can function as memory T cells). They identified T cells that respond to the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid, which is a structural protein inside the virus. They also detected T cell responses to two non-structural proteins that SARS-CoV-2 needs to make additional copies of its genome and spread. The team found that all those recently recovered from COVID-19 produced T cells that recognize multiple parts of SARS-CoV-2.
Next, they looked at blood samples from 23 people who’d survived SARS. Their studies showed that those individuals still had lasting memory T cells today, 17 years after the outbreak. Those memory T cells, acquired in response to SARS-CoV-1, also recognized parts of SARS-CoV-2.
Finally, Bertoletti’s team looked for such T cells in blood samples from 37 healthy individuals with no history of either COVID-19 or SARS. To their surprise, more than half had T cells that recognize one or more of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins under study here. It’s still not clear if this acquired immunity stems from previous infection with coronaviruses that cause the common cold or perhaps from exposure to other as-yet unknown coronaviruses.
What’s clear from this study is our past experiences with coronavirus infections may have something important to tell us about COVID-19. Bertoletti’s team and others are pursuing this intriguing lead to see where it will lead—not only in explaining our varied responses to the virus, but also in designing new treatments and optimized vaccines.
 SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell immunity in cases of COVID-19 and SARS, and uninfected controls. Le Bert N, Tan AT, Kunasegaran K, et al. Nature. 2020 July 15. [published online ahead of print]
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Overview of the Immune System (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIAID)
Bertoletti Lab (Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore)