31 Oct 2020

Dr Fran Priddy: 'Transformational nine months' as scientists race to find Covid-19 vaccines

From Saturday Morning, 5:25 pm on 31 October 2020

Human trials of Covid-19 vaccines - less than a year since the virus emerged - are a testament to decades of cooperation and knowledge gained by those working in the field, an expert says.  

Dr Fran Priddy

Dr Fran Priddy says it's astounding that a Covid-19 vaccine may be available in 2021. Photo: supplied / Victoria University of Wellington.

American vaccine expert Dr Fran Priddy is helping to lead New Zealand's Covid-19 vaccine effort.

She recently joined the Malaghan Institute as clinical director of the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa NZ (VAANZ).

VAANZ is a multidisciplinary team of local and international collaborators specialising in vaccine research, development, and manufacturing.

Dr Priddy has spent much of her career researching and developing clinical vaccines for infectious diseases including HIV.

She told Saturday Morning that the global effort to find an effective vaccine to deal with Covid-19 was hugely impressive.

She expects there will probably be data available early in 2021 as to whether some of the international vaccines currently being trialled on people are effective, and then there will be a plan to start rollout.

"So I think for the average person, by the end of next year there's potential... that they might have access. I think for people who are at risk it could really be a lot earlier which is really astounding to be saying things like that."

She said it has been a "transformational nine months" of science to get to this point and the cooperation and progress had been set up by previous work over 20 plus years. In the vaccine field that has involved using a lot of modern technologies such as sequencing and decoding the structure of small proteins in the body.

Decades of experience had gone into trying to develop vaccines for diseases such as HIV, TB, malaria and Ebola.

"Basically all of that science has been rapidly applied to this single virus in less than a year. It's amazing to see - it is transformational to see what the concerted application of all that science and effort can do..."

There are now hundreds of vaccine candidates and eight or nine in huge efficacy trials which was "transformational".
She said the speed of going from sequencing the coronavirus to getting it into the lab as a viral vaccine, into animals and then humans was unprecedented.

"It's taking the science transformations of the last 30 years and then applying them in nine months."

New Zealand's contribution

In New Zealand three domestic candidates are being supported by VAANZ. All three are still in the lab, so are regarded as second generation candidates, Dr Priddy said.

The ones that are already in large trials are first generation, and all the candidates coming along behind will be able to learn from the knowledge gained by the first round of vaccines.

"Hopefully [they] will benefit from that and add technologies ecetera that can improve the efficacy."

The first candidate is a traditional viral vaccine, which has taken the coronavirus and inactivated or killed it so it is considered very safe.

"What's unique about what New Zealand is offering is to try and develop that vaccine without requiring the typical high level of bio safety lab facility that might be needed... we'd make it a much simpler manufacturing process."

The second one is also a traditional vaccine candidate which is a protein which takes the spike protein off the coronavirus and uses that as the vaccine antigen. New Zealand researchers and others overseas are hoping to be able to understand what part of the spike protein will be most effective and how to present it to the immune system.

Covid-19 coronavirus particles, illustration.

Photo: AFP

The third one is a collaboration between Australian and New Zealand researchers looking at a pan-coronavirus type vaccine, including antigens from more than one type of coronavirus, ideally to get an immune response and protect from future unknown coronaviruses that may jump into humans.

Humans have so far been exposed to three coronaviruses, Sars1, Mers and now Covid-19.  "So we can definitely expect to have more coronavirus infections so it's important to figure out how we can protect against future strains," Dr Priddy said.

VAANZ is separate from the government's taskforce that is looking to source vaccines globally for New Zealanders.

In the long term the goal was for New Zealand to have the scientific expertise to manufacture its own vaccines.

She said the country has the capacity to manufacture vaccines but it doesn't have all the technologies needed for all of them. The country may take over manufacturing part of the process.