LIVE BLOG: R&D response to COVID-19 pandemic

17 May 2022 | Live Blog
Covid 19 blog

The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting universities and research institutes across the world. But the same institutions are also working very hard to find out how the disease can be stopped and its effects mitigated.

Follow this live blog for the latest updates on how the crisis is impacting research and innovation, and what governments, funders, companies, universities, associations and scientists are doing to stop or cope with the pandemic.

You can read the full archive of this blog here and here.

Since June 2020 researchers at the University of Tours have been working on the development of a nasal vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

To date, pre-clinical tests have demonstrated efficacy of the vaccine after two nasal immunisations delivered three weeks apart, both in terms of the immune response and early neutralisation of the original virus and its variants,

These results were subsequently confirmed at the end of 2021 in rodent studies that validated its effectiveness against the Delta variant. The vaccine, consisting of the spike protein and non-mutated viral proteins, is therefore seen as likely to protect against Omicron also.

Now, a start-up LoValTech (for Loire Valley Technology) has been granted an exclusive licence to commercialise the nasal vaccine following its spin out from the university earlier this month.

The company has raised a total of €2.4 million in grants from various funding bodies for further development of the vaccine, including for the production of the vaccine proteins for clinical trials.

LoValTech will also work with collaborators to develop a device for administering the vaccine.

Discussions on the design of the clinical trials and the drafting of the phase I protocol are due to start over the next few weeks.

More than 800 deaths across Europe were avoided as a result of the improved air quality resulting from the government measures taken to limit the spread of the SARS-Cov-2 virus.

Paris, London, Barcelona, and Milan were among the top six cities with the highest number of avoided deaths, according to new research funded by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts on behalf of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service and led by a team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

The study compared government policies from 47 European cities from February to July 2020 and estimated the changes in pollution levels and related number of deaths avoided during the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic.

Measures such as school and workplace closures, cancelling public events, and stay-at-home requirements had the strongest effect on reducing NO2 levels. This is linked to the reduction in road transport and local mobility which is known to be a contributor to NO2 air pollution.

Spanish, French and Italian cities had the largest decrease in NO2, of between 50% and 60% during the period.

Although strong decreases in NO2 were observed, levels of fine particulate matter were reduced more modestly since they are also produced by natural sources, including wildfires and dust, and other emission sources like residential activities, that were slightly increased during lockdown.

“The lockdown during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic created immense health and social costs, however, it has offered unique conditions to investigate potential effects of strict policies to reduce pollution levels in urban areas,” said Antonio Gasparrini, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at LSHTM and senior author of the study. “This ‘natural experiment’ has given us a glimpse of how air quality can be improved by drastic public health measures that would be difficult to implement in normal times. The information can be important to design effective policies to tackle the problem of pollution in our cities.”

Although all cities experienced a slight increase in air pollution levels after the strong decline in March and April 2020, levels remained below business-as-usual scenario estimates throughout the period studied. Restrictions on internal and international travel showed a minor impact on the local pollution levels.

Patients who are receiving immunosuppressive therapy, such as cancer chemotherapy or treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, often do not respond to primary COVID-19 vaccination, and have an increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease.

Until now, it was not clear whether these at risk patients can benefit from an additional booster vaccination.

Now, new research by the Medical University of Vienna has shown that a third vaccination is safe and effective in those patients who were initially unable to produce antibodies after vaccination. The study was recently published in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

Researcher Michael Bonelli was able to show that even patients being treated with the rheumatoid arthritis drug rituximab, who did not respond to primary vaccination are able to develop an immune response following a booster vaccination.

The study is the first randomised, blinded trial to show the efficacy and safety of a booster vaccination in patients without an immune response after two vaccinations because of rituximab treatment.

An ongoing study is investigating the efficacy of a forth vaccination in patients at risk.

Pfizer and BioNtech said they have begun a clinical study of an updated version of their COVID-19 vaccine, which is specifically designed to protect against the Omicron variant.

The study will have three cohorts, comparing the current Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine with the Omicron-based vaccine.

“While current research and real-world data show that boosters continue to provide a high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalisation with Omicron, we recognise the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address Omicron and new variants in the future,” said Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine R&D at Pfizer.

“Emerging data indicate vaccine-induced protection against infection and mild to moderate disease wanes more rapidly than was observed with prior strains,” said Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech. “This study is part of our science-based approach to develop a variant-based vaccine that achieves a similar level of protection against Omicron as it did with earlier variants but with longer duration of protection.”

The SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant causes less severe disease than the Delta variant that went before, even though it is better at escaping immune protection provided by vaccination or previous infections.

The reasons for this have so far remained elusive, but now a new study by scientists at Kent University and the Goethe-University Frankfurt has shown Omicron is particularly sensitive to inhibition by the interferon response, a non-specific immune response that can be triggered by every cell in the body.

They say this explains why COVID-19 patients infected with the Omicron variant are less likely to experience severe disease.

Martin Michaelis of the School of Bioscience at Kent University, said, “Our study provides for the first time an explanation why Omicron infections are less likely to cause severe disease. This is due to [the fact that] Omicron, in contrast to Delta, does not effectively inhibit the host cell interferon immune response.”

Although more transmissible, the study showed Omicron remains sensitive to eight of the most important antiviral drugs and drug candidates for the treatment of COVID-19. The same is not true of monoclonal antibody drugs designed to lock onto and neutralize the virus, which are mostly not effective against the Omicron variant.

The cell culture study the researchers carried out does not exactly reflect the more complex situation in humans, noted Jindrich Cinatl of the Institute of Medical Virology at the Goethe-University, but he said, “Our data provide encouraging evidence that the available antiviral COVID-19 drugs are also effective against Omicron.“

Researchers at the University of British Columbia faculty of medicine have conducted the world’s first molecular-level structural analysis of the Omicron variant spike protein by which the virus gets access to human cells.

The Omicron variant has an unprecedented 37 mutations on its spike protein - three to five times more than previous variants. 

The near single atom resolution analysis, published in the journal Science, reveals how the heavily mutated Omicron variant attaches to and infects human cells. 

Understanding the molecular structure of the viral spike protein will inform the development of more effective therapies against Omicron and related variants in the future, said Sriram Subramaniam, professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology and lead author of the paper. “By analysing the mechanisms by which the virus infects human cells, we can develop better treatments that disrupt that process and neutralise the virus,” he said.

The structural analysis revealed that several mutations create new salt bridges (bonds between oppositely charged proteins) and hydrogen bonds between the spike protein and the ACE2 receptor on human cells. The researchers say these new bonds appear to increase the binding affinity, creating stronger attachments between the virus and human cells. However, another mutation was shown to decrease the strength of these attachments.

“Overall, the findings show that Omicron has greater binding affinity than the original virus, with levels more comparable to what we see with the Delta variant,” said Subramaniam. “It is remarkable that the Omicron variant evolved to retain its ability to bind with human cells despite such extensive mutations.”

In other experiments, the researchers showed the Omicron spike protein has an increased ability to evade antibody drugs. In contrast to previous variants, Omicron showed measurable evasion from all six monoclonal antibodies tested, with complete escape from five. The variant also displayed increased evasion of antibodies in blood samples from vaccinated individuals and unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. 

The US Food and Drug Administration has revised the authorisations for two monoclonal antibody drugs bamlanivimab and etesevimab (administered together) and REGEN-COV (casirivimab and imdevimab) to limit their use to only when a patient is not infected by the Omicron variant that is now causing most infections worldwide.

The move comes on the heels of data showing these treatments are highly unlikely to be active against Omicron.

Current monoclonal antibodies are designed to neutralise SARS-CoV-2 by binding to the spike protein seen in the original variant of the virus that emerged in Wuhan. The mutations in the Omicron variant means this mechanism of action is no longer effective.

Valneva announced results from an initial laboratory study demonstrating that antibodies induced by three doses of its whole virus, inactivated COVID-19 vaccine candidate, VLA2001, neutralise the Omicron variant.

Blood samples from 30 participants in the phase I/II trial of VLA2001-201 were used in a pseudovirus assay to analyse neutralisation of the original Wuhan variant of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the Delta and Omicron variants.

All 30 samples presented neutralising antibodies against the ancestral virus and Delta variant, and 26 samples (87%) presented neutralising antibodies against the Omicron variant. The mean reduction of neutralisation relative to the ancestral virus was 2.7-fold for Delta and 16.7-fold for Omicron.

Juan Carlos Jaramillo, chief medical officer of Valneva, said, “We are extremely pleased with these results, which confirm the potential for broad-spectrum protection of our inactivated, adjuvanted whole virus vaccine and its ability to address currently circulating variants of concern.

“We continue to believe that VLA2001 could be an important component of the fight against COVID-19, and Valneva remains fully committed to bringing VLA2001 to people who need it as soon as we can,” he said.

Valneva is continuing to provide data to the European Medicines Agency, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and the National Health Regulatory Authority in Bahrain, as part of the rolling submissions process for initial approval of VLA2001. The company continues to expect to complete these submissions in time to receive potential regulatory approvals in the first quarter of 2022.

Valneva announced in November 2021 that the European Commission signed an agreement for the company to supply up to 60 million doses of VLA2001 over two years – including 24.3 million doses in 2022. Delivery of the vaccine in Europe is currently expected to begin in April 2022, subject to approval by the EMA.

Policies to tackle COVID-19 are more likely to get broad public support if they are proposed by experts or by politicians from cross-party coalitions, rather than from politicians from a single ruling party, according to a new study of seven countries.  

Public behaviour and support for measures such as facemasks or social distancing have been crucial in tackling the worldwide pandemic.  Yet, it has also been difficult to secure and maintain that support, and to avoid debates getting polarised. 

The research found that polarisation emerges when policies are associated with opposing political parties and politicians, but that people have a high level of confidence that science experts will act in the public’s best interest. 

The COVID pandemic provided a unique opportunity to study this issue.  It was a new threat and one that was experienced simultaneously across the world, allowing for international comparisons. 

The research team included colleagues from the UK, US, Sweden, Israel, Austria, Italy and Singapore and involved 13,000 participants in 7 countries:  UK, US, Brazil, Israel, Italy, Sweden and South Korea.  These countries display a range of different political systems and parties in government and varying experiences of COVID and responses to it.  

In each country, participants were asked first about their overall political views, using a measure called affective polarisation: their feelings towards liberal and conservative politicians and towards experts.  

They were then asked to give their views on two COVID policies.  Both involved restrictions, but one emphasised more stringent public health measures to keep case numbers down, while the other involved fewer restrictions for economic recovery.    

Respondents in all countries supported policies proposed by experts and bipartisan coalitions, more than those proposed by either liberal or conservative elites.

A comparative study conducted at the Spallanzani Institute in Rome, the leading Italian research institute for infectious diseases, by a joint Italian-Russian team of researchers has shown that the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine induces more than two times higher levels of virus neutralising antibodies to the Omicron variant than two doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

The study was conducted on comparable blood samples from individuals dosed with Sputnik V and Pfizer’s vaccines.

Among all samples, 74.2% of Sputnik V-vaccinated blood samples were able to neutralise Omicron, compared to 56.9% of samples from Pfizer-vaccinated people.

The data support the results of a recent laboratory study by the Gamaleya Centre in Moscow, where Sputnik V was developed, also demonstrating that Sputnik V induces robust neutralising antibody response to Omicron variant.

Sputnik V is currently approved in 71 countries with a total population of over 4 billion people. Its safety and efficacy have been demonstrated in more than 30 studies and real-world data publications from more than 10 countries.

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