Dr. Mark Poznansky, director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been working on a vaccine for the coronavirus for years – he just didn’t know it.
Almost a decade before the novel coronavirus swept the planet, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency approached Poznansky and his laboratory team about a vaccine. They didn’t know about COVID-19 yet, but they wanted to be ready for the next pandemic.
Now, the self-assembling vaccine they developed is being mobilized to fight the virus that has killed more than 83,000 people around the world.
“As soon as the genome of COVID-19 came online we found ourselves as one of the centers of interest for both companies and governments to develop a vaccine,” Poznansky said.
It’s called VaxCelerate, a play on words that communicates its ability to be adapted for any disease. There are two main components: a base, which activates the immune system, and a spearhead, which targets the disease itself. The base, which has already been tested in humans, is broadly applicable to any type of viral pathogen, so it can be stockpiled in advance. The spearhead is what Poznansky has been working on the last few weeks and hopes to start assembling at the beginning of next week.
“Academics don’t make products, companies make products, as soon as we can partner with a company to do this type of work, we’re much more likely to get something real,” Poznansky said. He has been working to produce VaxCelerate with Voltron Therapeutics, which has licensed the vaccine.
The plan is to have the vaccine enter animal testing by the middle of May, at which point the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be roped in. If all goes well, six months after the animal trials, planning can begin for human trials.
“That is still a long road. I don’t want to understate the timeline,” Poznansky said. “When you talk about developing a vaccine for millions of people, safety is an enormous priority.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee the model will work or be the most effective way of producing a vaccine. So while Poznansky is hopeful, he said it’s important to be patient and allow science to run its course.
“Our greatest defense against the virus at this point is the diversity of approaches that are going forward in testing,” he said. “Diversity of thinking and diversity of our own genetics is actually rather in our own favor.”
Still, it could be more than a year before a vaccine is ready for public distribution. In the meantime, Poznansky said there’s still hope for a drug that will change the course of the disease once patients are already infected with COVID-19 to prevent it from becoming more severe.
“There are great minds and great labs and great companies working on that,” he said.
Until then, social distancing remains the most effective manner of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. But even once a drug or vaccine is developed to help treat or prevent COVID-19, Poznansky said the public will need to be patient as medical experts take their time to ensure it is safe.
“The history of medicine is littered with drugs that were thought to be panaceas,” he said. “We have to be patient and wait for [clinical trial] results to make sure we do no harm.”