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Labtalk - Remco about COVID-19 vaccines
Picture of Remco Arts
Remco Arts
Scientist at Pivot Park Screening Centre. Oss, the Netherlands.

COVID-19 vaccines, the key to the door that leads us out of this pandemic?

When I started writing this blog, I just received the notification from the government that my year of birth – 1988 – could make an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccination. The process to make this appointment was remarkably simple. There was a well-structured website, the possibility to choose a time and location that suited me best, and clear instructions on what to bring on the day itself. 

Vaccines lead the way
After receiving my invitation for this vaccination, I could not help but marvel at the miracle we are witnessing. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the mumps vaccine was famous for being the fastest vaccine ever developed. This took about four years in the 1960s. Now, under pressure from a global pandemic caused by a new disease, several safe and extremely effective vaccines have been developed in less than a year. This includes the development, rigorous safety and efficacy testing and approval for emergency deployment. These COVID-19 vaccines were not developed by sheer luck or chance. They are the fruit society can harvest after making two key decisions: relying on the scientific method to separate truth from fiction and investing in fundamental research.

mRNA vaccines, the vaccine type that so far has been deployed most extensively in the Netherlands, are new and have never been deployed before. However, research that enabled development of mRNA vaccines has been going on since the 1990s. It was then that scientists first realized that it should be possible to vaccinate people by introducing specific mRNA strands as active pharmaceutical ingredient. The mRNA should enter certain cells, where the mRNA is translated to proteins, to which the body develops an immune response. Crucially, the mRNA encodes proteins that are part of the pathogen in question, in this case SARS-CoV-2. As such, the immune response against the proteins encoded by this mRNA also yields immunity to the pathogen. This is a very generic principle for vaccine development.

Since the 1990, much effort has gone into optimizing safety, stability and formulation of mRNA vaccines. Now, after years of slowly transitioning from fundamental to applied research, the idea that was first conceived in the 1990’s has blossomed into a solution that is liberating the world. Public opinion can, from time to time, be critical of fundamental research as well as the resources spent on it, but the new vaccines once again prove that the return on investment for fundamental research can be beyond calculation.

Accelerating drug discovery
COVID-19 vaccines are the key to the door that leads us out of this pandemic. Their exceptionally fast development, safety and efficacy offer hope that future pandemics might be tackled in the same way. Still, for the first year of the pandemic – and much longer in many parts of the world – there were no COVID-19 vaccines. Early on, there was hope that several existing drugs could be repurposed to reduce COVID-19 mortality rates. As time went by, one by one, the positive effect of these drugs turned out to be less than initially hoped for and for most drugs there wasn’t even a positive effect at all. It is therefore vital to continue investing in research that may identify new antiviral therapeutics. Around the world, research to develop COVID-19 therapies is ongoing at an impressive pace. Aside from COVID-19, there are many other diseases that present a heavy burden on society and individuals and where an effective treatment is still lacking. Accelerating the drug discovery process is more important than it has ever been.

Pivot Park Screening Centre has a long-standing experience in early drug discovery and is continuously expanding its knowledge and experience.  PPSC has extensive expertise in assay development, which could be used to either develop an assay for a customer from scratch or to optimize an existing assay. If desired so, we can run these assays on our ultra-High-Throughput robotic infrastructure. We have our own high-quality compound collection comprising 300,000 drug-like compounds and extensive knowledge of screening customers’ libraries. Finally, PPSC is a participant in the European Lead Factory, a unique public-private partnership that was established to promote discovery of novel small-molecule candidates. Through this variety of approaches and activities, we aim to accelerate the drug discovery process and fulfill our mission: to discover new medicines for a healthier society.