A Virus' One Purpose, and How Vaccines Thwart It

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab.  (NIAID-RM)

As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread around the Bay Area and the world, the National Institutes of Health says a vaccine for the public is at least a year away. Still, researchers around the world are already working on it, and some clinical trials have begun. To learn about the latest efforts, KQED's Brian Watt visited the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology, a nonprofit research center in San Francisco. He spoke with Senior Researcher Dr. Melanie Ott. 

Ott's answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What is a virus and how does it infect our cells and spread around the body?

A virus, to a virologist, is a fascinating little creature. It is basically  a minuscule ball of proteins that contains in its shell a nucleic acid, which is the genome or the code for the virus to replicate.  By itself, the virus is not able to propagate or to replicate or to multiply, and it needs to get into a host cell. Once it's in the cell it can then hijack a lot of the proteins in our body and in our own cells to replicate itself. This is basically the only purpose of a virus.  

On the other side of the equation, what is a vaccine?

If the virus comes into our cells, the cells are not going to be powerless, the cells are going to be highly alarmed, and our whole immune system is basically geared toward defending us against invading viruses or other pathogens.

So when the virus comes in, an immune reaction is being generated -- T cells and B cells -- and they produce things like antibodies that will recognize the virus, neutralize it, and get it out of the system.

What the vaccine does is activate this reaction of our body ahead of a virus coming in. We mimic what the natural virus would do, but instead of having to go through a whole infection and becoming sick, we do this with a nondangerous and easy means ahead of time.  So our immune system is already prepared when the virus comes in, to immediately kick in and to eliminate that virus before we get sick.

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Why will it take so long to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus?

Making vaccines is a long process because we want to make sure that the vaccine is safe and effective. So usually when we talk about vaccines, this is a yearslong process. Now, when we're talking about the new coronavirus vaccine, this is already on an accelerated pace. When we talk about a year or a year-and-a-half, that is unprecedented. It's really already a very fast pace for a vaccine. 

This can be very complicated, from a virus that is inactivated, or it can be very simple, by just taking the genetic code of a singular protein of the virus and putting it into the body, and the body does all the work that we would otherwise do outside to generate these specific antigens we're using.

I think there's a lot of urgency, goodwill and collaboration currently ongoing  from people in the lab, researchers and these agencies to make sure that we're doing the right thing, the safe thing, but also, responding efficiently to this crisis.

Are there parts of the process that could be worked around a little bit faster? 

I think there's two sides. I think one side is the vaccine, which is, I think, the best way to respond, and also to induce global immunity against the virus. There are a lot of questions still unanswered that we will find out. Is there a lifelong immunity with the vaccine or with the infection? The point is that this is something that even if we have a vaccine, and we give it to the population, it will still take a while until the immunity is being generated.

 What could we do to prevent this type of outbreak in the future?

For us, the key thing in research is that we gear it currently against this coronavirus, but also against future coronaviruses, so that we have a platform that we can use and easily adapt to a virus that might evolve in the future.

We just have to get used to the fact that because we are now connected in the world, as much as we are, we have to be extra alert that this is also how you can spread infectious pathogens very easily. So I think there's really a unique time for Bay Area research and the U.S. research to come together and to work together at an unprecedented speed and collaborative spirit.