Vaccines to protect against Covid-19, the new coronavirus infection

Covid-19, the new respiratory infection caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, is spreading internationally. However, companies and research institutes are developing protective vaccines against it.

Das Bild zeigt eine symbolische Impfstoffflasche mit der Aufschrift Coronavirus Vaccine sowie eine Spritze, beides gehalten von einer Hand, die einen blauen Schutzhandschuh trägt.

Status of vaccine development

Each vaccine project must pass through six stages. They are shown in the following diagram:

Presentation of the individual development steps of vaccines

Until a few years ago, it would have taken 15 to 20 years to complete all the stages. New technology and previous experience with vaccine projects against related viruses (see below) make an enormous acceleration possible. This is shown by the interim results that some companies and research groups have reported for their projects. The projects that have made the most progress have already entered stage 4, the volunteer testing; or they plan to do so in the coming months:

Several projects have been reported by companies or research institutions to have reached the stage of testing with animals:

How soon?

Types of vaccines

The companies and research institutes are working towards different vaccines. Most of their projects are aimed at one of the following three types of vaccines:

Live vaccines with vector viruses: Several projects are based on well known harmless viruses, such as the "Modified Vaccinia Virus Ankara" (MVA), the adenovirus serotype 26 or the virus from measles vaccine. Such so-called vector viruses can multiply in humans without causing disease. It is also known how they can be replicated in large quantities. Now they "disguise" researchers as SARS-CoV-2 (concretely: they exchange one or more of their surface proteins with SARS-CoV-2 proteins) using genetic engineering methods, so that they can make the immune system believe that a Covid-19 infection has occurred. Those who are vaccinated with this protein build up an immune protection that can also fend off a real infection - this is the plan. Based on a vector virus, the first approved Ebola vaccine, another Ebola vaccine (for which approval is pending) and other experimental vaccines have also been developed. This strategy is now being applied in the SARS-CoV-2 projects of Janssen, DZIF and the University of Oxford, for example.

Inactivated vaccines with viral proteins: Several projects targeting vaccines with viral proteins (such as those of Novavax, Greffex and the University of Queensland) are based on long-established technology: many approved vaccines are composed in this way; for example, those against tetanus, hepatitis B or influenza. However, it may be easier to produce large quantities of vaccine units quickly with other vaccines. However, this will only become apparent when the time comes.

Gene based vaccines: These vaccines contain selected genes of the virus in the form of mRNA or DNA. After the injection, these genes are supposed to induce the formation of (harmless) viral proteins in the body, which in turn, as with a conventional vaccine, cause the build-up of immune protection. Such mRNA- and DNA-based vaccines have the advantage that many injection doses can be produced very quickly. However, no vaccine against any disease is yet available on the market. Companies developing such vaccines against Covid-19 include CureVac, BioNTech, Moderna, Inovio, Arcturus, LineaRx/Takis, Anges and Translate Bio/Sanofi; the OpenCorona consortium led by the Swedish Karolinska Institute and involving the University of Gießen is also developing a DNA-based vaccine.

Financial support

Several vaccine projects are financially supported by CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. These are the projects of:

In conjunction with CEPI, GSK also offers to contribute its proprietary adjuvant technology for vaccines to projects for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. In addition to the aforementioned collaboration with the University of Queensland, GSK also entered into a collaboration with the Chinese vaccine developer Clover Biopharmaceuticals.

CEPI is a Product Development Partnership funded by Norway, Canada, Germany (Federal Ministry of Education and Research), Japan, Australia, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, among others. It was founded in 2017 specifically to financially strengthen vaccine projects against major epidemics or pandemics.

However, important financial support for projects and the construction of production facilities also comes from the EU Commission and the governments of several countries such as the USA, Australia and Canada.

Other examples of ongoing vaccine projects against Covid-19

The Mainz-based company BioNTech is working with Pfizer to develop a vaccine which it plans to test with volunteers in Europe, the USA and China from the end of April onwards. The companies are also cooperating with the Chinese company Fosun Pharma.

Janssen (in the Johnson & Johnson group) has also announced a vaccine. The vaccine is being developed using a technology that has already been used for an Ebola vaccine that is currently undergoing approval procedures in the EU. It is working with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in the USA.

Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine division of Sanofi, also cooperates with BARDA. The goal is to develop a Covid-19 vaccine using the company's proprietary technology platform for recombinant DNA. The project follows on from an earlier one, which was aimed at a SARS vaccine.

Tonix Pharmaceuticals, Altimmune, Greffex, Vaxart, GeoVax (with BravoVax in China) and LineaRx with Takis Biotech, all based in the USA, also reported on the development of their own vaccines. Altimmun's vaccine will be administered nasally, like a previously developed influenza vaccine by the company. For its TNX-1800 vaccine, Tonix is modifying a Horsepox virus. Vaxart is planning a vaccine that is swallowed as a tablet and not injected.

Also active in the USA is Kentucky BioProcessing, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco. The company uses genetically modified tobacco leaves to produce the viral proteins for its dead vaccine. This technology is suitable for the rapid production of such proteins, but has not yet been used for an approved vaccine. The new vaccine is currently being tested with animals.

In Denmark, the company ExpreS2ion is developing a vaccine with partners.

The Israeli company Vaxil has also reported on the development of its own vaccine.

Does a tuberculosis vaccination help against Covid-19?

It is possible that other vaccines might be able to contribute to the protection against an infection, although they were not developed against corona viruses: Tuberculosis vaccines. The idea behind this: Tuberculosis vaccines increase the general immune defence against germs and could therefore also help people to fend off SARS-CoV-2 or at least not be affected so severely.

The suitability of the old tuberculosis vaccine BCG is to be tested at clinics in Nijmegen and Utrecht (Netherlands). This vaccine has not been used in Germany for a long time.

For Germany, however, the companies Vakzine Projekt Management (Germany) and Serum Institute of India are planning to test the newer Tuberculosis vaccine VPM1002, which has not yet been approved because the last studies against tuberculosis are still ongoing. The Covid-19 study is to be carried out at several German hospitals with elderly people and healthcare workers. The vaccine was originally developed at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.

(1) Adjuvants are "potentiators" for vaccines which, among other things, can make it possible that considerably less viral protein per vaccine injection is sufficient for immunisation or that more injection doses can be produced with a given amount of viral protein produced.