Bioanalysis Zone

COVID-19 is opening a door to a new era in drug development

With coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) shutting down countries and economies, the world is expectantly looking at scientist to come up with a solution. Although the novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) coronavirus is fast and deadly, there is a serious arsenal of antivirals the scientific community is charging at SARS-CoV-2. The weaponry includes novel RNA vaccines, broad-spectrum virus inhibitors and even a cell therapy.

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 Tanel Mahlakõiv, PhD – Celularity Inc (NJ, USA)Tamal Mahlakoiv
Tanel Mahlakõiv has an international and very collaborative background in biomedical research, having worked in six countries on three continents. He holds a PhD degree in virology and immunology from Freiburg University in Germany and an MSc in Biosciences from École normale supérieure de Lyon, France. He started his science career in molecular virology working on viruses that require the highest biocontainment level, including Ebola virus. His doctorate focused on the innate mechanisms the body uses to protect itself against pathogenic viruses that infect epithelial tissues, such as the lung and the gut. Various Influenza viruses and SARS were among the many viruses in his tool kit. He performed his postdoctoral research in Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City (USA) studying the interactions of immune cells with metabolism and the nervous system. Currently, Tanel is a senior scientist in a New Jersey based clinical-stage biotechnology firm Celularity, Inc that is developing cellular therapies to improve the quality of life and extend life expectancy in humans. He has published in top-tier journals, including Nature, Science Immunology and Immunity.

Since Edward Jenner’s experimental work using cowpox to protect against smallpox in 1796, vaccines have drastically extended life expectancy and improved the quality of human life. Yet, despite significant scientific and biotechnological advances, it takes a tremendous amount of effort, resources and a long time to develop an efficacious and safe vaccine. Exemplified by decades of HIV vaccine struggles, sometimes not even that is enough.

For Moderna, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company that is focused on developing messenger RNA based drugs and vaccines, it took a few days to come up with a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate, termed mRNA-1273, and only 2 months to start testing safety and immunogenicity in human trials. Other small biotechnology companies including CureVac (Tbingen, Germany), Cepi (MA, USA), Novavax (MA, USA), CanSino (Hong Kong, China), Inovio (PA, USA) and pharmaceutical mammoths like Sanofi (Paris, France), J&J (NJ, USA), Gilead (CA, USA) and GSK (Brentford, UK) are not far behind. However, even if everything goes as planned and human trials demonstrate safety, immunogenicity and protection, a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 will not reach the masses before 12–18 months. The development of neutralizing monoclonal antibodies takes a similarly long time. Blood serum from recovered COVID-19 patients has the potential to neutralize the virus in severe infections but is not an option for large-scale treatments. Therefore, a parallel race is on to develop antivirals to specifically suppress SARS-CoV-2 replication or drugs to control COVID-19 disease.

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