In the second part of our interview with Professor Martin Bachmann, we hear how his lab is coping with working during a pandemic, the concept of herd immunity, and how long the pandemic may last.
In Part 1 of our interview with Professor Martin Bachmann from the University of Bern in Switzerland and the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, he explained the science that underpins his candidate coronavirus vaccine.
Medical News Today also spoke with Prof. Bachmann about the challenges of keeping his lab running during the pandemic, how quickly he thinks his vaccine may be ready to test, and about possible treatments for COVID-19.
Medical News Today: What has it been like in your lab? How is everyone coping with working during a pandemic?
Prof. Martin Bachmann: It’s been very stressful, particularly as we are working on these vaccines.
We had to divide the team up into two groups, one to take the early shift and one to take the late shift. We don’t want the whole team to go down if someone is sick.
We had a scare recently after a TV crew came to film in the lab, and one of them had COVID-19 symptoms the next day. The whole lab had to shut down for several days.
We are really focusing on creating the genetically fused vaccine at the moment to switch to mass production, and luckily we don’t do that only here. I have a long-standing collaboration with the Latvian Biomedical Research and Study Centre in Riga, and they are working on that bit as well.
“We could probably have hundreds of millions of doses in half a year.”
It’s a big group that makes a big effort. It’s good that it’s across two different countries because if one of the groups goes down with COVID-19, the other group can keep working.
MNT: Do you have a target date for your first-in-man study, and for when you think the vaccine may be ready for the general population?
Prof. Martin Bachmann: Not yet. I think within the next 2 weeks, we will know how well the genetically fused virus-like particle vaccine will work in our models.
Then we need to get the funding. We could probably have hundreds of millions of doses in half a year. So in that half a year, we can do the first studies and look at expansion and reach a lot of people.
The case for a vaccine is really, really strong. Even in China, the majority of the population has not been exposed to the virus yet. This is because the containment measures have kept the numbers under control, which has stopped the spread for now.
But once they lower their measures, the virus will just come back.
Even if they had a lot of cases that went undetected, it’s not clear if people who had very mild symptoms, so-called subclinical cases, will have made enough antibodies to protect them from future infection.
MNT: There are conflicting reports about whether having COVID-19 will leave a person with long-lasting immunity to further SARS-CoV-2 infection. Will there be people out there who won’t have made enough neutralizing antibodies? What about people who had only very mild symptoms?
Prof. Martin Bachmann: Well, this is immunology. There will always be the odd individual who doesn’t make enough neutralizing antibodies.
But the general population will make enough of these neutralizing antibodies, and they will likely be reasonably long-term.
And even if these don’t last very long, then there is always the option of giving the vaccine once a year. However, there is no reason really to believe that. I know that there are rumors out there purporting that people don’t really make antibodies.
“I can tell you if you got COVID-19 and you got really sick, I am sure that you will make an antibody response that will also last.”
If a person has no symptoms or has the virus and it only replicates a little and never really reaches the lymph nodes, then maybe they won’t make an antibody response — but then they have not been really sick.
But I would be surprised to find anyone who has been very sick who didn’t make an antibody response.
MNT: In the long term, do you think this virus will behave like the seasonal flu, as there is already talk of different strains developing, or will it be more like measles, highly infectious, but we have a vaccine to control it?
Prof. Martin Bachmann: I certainly believe in the latter. There is evidence that the new coronavirus is very genetically stable. So it’s doubtful that it will behave like the flu.
On the other hand, if you look at something like polio. We have been immunizing people for 70 years, and the virus is still exactly the same, it’s still the same vaccine.
MNT: Some people have alluded to the possibility of letting herd immunity establish naturally through controlled natural exposure, rather than keeping everyone in isolation until a vaccine is available. Presumably, you think a vaccine is the better option?
Prof. Martin Bachmann: Let’s ask my parents. They’re both 85. I think they probably don’t feel that letting the virus move through the population is a great idea; they are probably both going to die if that happens.
It’s the same with people having these corona parties. This is likely going to kill 1 in 100 people. It’s not a good idea.
It sounds easy, but if you think about the risk of an infection versus the risk of a vaccine that hasn’t been tested to the nth degree, the vaccine cannot cause much damage.
The risk of having side effects from the vaccine are so much lower than the obvious risk of having the infection. And of course, we can’t control the virus.
MNT: What other kinds of treatments do you think are likely to emerge in response to the pandemic.
Prof. Martin Bachmann: It would be great to have a drug to treat patients. But drugs are good for treating patients when they are ill; you cannot control the pandemic with antiviral drugs.
One other thing that has shown promise is using plasma or IgG from people who have already recovered from the disease. This worked in SARS, and some tests using this technique in China seemed to work quite well.
But this is really only an option for critically ill patients because there isn’t a lot of serum available for treatment.
MNT: This passive immunization or passive antibody therapy with serum from people who have recovered from having the infection, how long would the immunity last in people receiving this treatment?
Prof. Martin Bachmann: Antibodies have a half-life of about 3 weeks. So depending on how much you give a person, you can expect it to last no longer than a few months.
This is an option for acute treatment, not a strategy to protect the whole population. There just isn’t enough IgG to go around, so we need to reserve it for at-risk populations or the very sick.
MNT: How long do you think the pandemic will last?
Prof. Martin Bachmann: The real question is, can you keep it down long enough to have a vaccine? Without a vaccine, we are maybe looking at something like a year. But this would mean that 60–70% of the population would have had exposure to the virus.
MNT: Do you think that governments around the world are doing the right thing in terms of their responses by introducing social distancing and quarantine measures?
Prof. Martin Bachmann: Absolutely, even if you just slow it down, at least you won’t have so many people who get sick all at the same time.
The more you spread that peak out, the more efficiently the hospitals can cope with the patients. So even in the absence of a vaccine, this is a fantastically important thing to do.
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