Friday, March 31, 2023

How a neglected scientific feat led to the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines

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2020 has been a tough year, but at least it’s ending on a positive note.

In recent weeks, vaccine makers have been enjoying Pfizer and Moderna have started rolling out vaccines in the US and UK, with plans to increase worldwide distribution in 2021.

Meanwhile, Chinese vaccine manufacturers have already started distributing million vaccines in China and other countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain– with probably more vaccines on the way. Nearly 100 vaccine manufacturers have started testing candidates in clinical trials, with 18 of those candidates in Endgame III, according to the New York Times.

All of these efforts have been based on a crucial scientific discovery: the sequencing of the COVID-19 genome. The genome, which Chinese researchers released on Jan.11, has formed the basis of scientific efforts to fight the virus, tests at follow the virus mutation, to the development of these vaccines.

Yet at the start of 2020, there was no guarantee that the data would be released as soon as it was released. Advances in modern technology and the daring efforts of a Chinese research lab have given vaccine makers and scientists around the world free access to the mapped genome, before much of the world even knew that the virus existed.

A risky exit

On January 3, Zhang Yongzhen, a virologist at Shanghai Fudan University, received a pathogen sample taken from a patient infected with a mysterious virus in Wuhan, China. Over the next two days, Zhang and a team from Shanghai worked day and night to map a genome.

“It took us less than 40 hours [to map the genome], so very, very fast, ”said Zhang Time in August. In 2003, researchers had spent months sequencing SARS, a virus that has spread across China and killed hundreds of people around the world. Now Zhang could deploy new next-generation sequencing tools to map the genome in just a few days.

On January 5, Zhang said he alerted Chinese health officials to his findings and the potential severity of the virus, which resembled SARS. He also published his results Jan.5 to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, a biomedical database maintained by the US government, he said. Time.

Over the next six days, Zhang continued to meet with Chinese public health officials to discuss the virus, as his article waited to be reviewed in the NCBI’s GenTK database, he says.

Yet Zhang’s delay in making the genome public may also have been linked to the Chinese government actively seeking to delete COVID-19 information. On January 3, China’s National Health Commission, the country’s main health body, ordered research institutes in China not to release any information relating to the emerging outbreak of Wuhan disease, according to Chinese media. Caixin.

Zhang said Nature in December that he was unaware of the government’s order, but he had feared that the authorities would oppose his releasing the genome.

Yet on the morning of January 11, Zhang said he received a call from a colleague, University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes, who urged him to make the mapped genome available to the public.

At the time, Zhang’s team was probably one of the many laboratories in China to have deciphered the genetic code. But after chatting with Zhang, Holmes managed to upload the genome to, an open discussion forum for epidemiology researchers.


At the time, the data release was not widely recognized for the turning point it was – although some researchers described it as what they called a Moment of “holy shit” – when it became clear that the virus could pose a potential threat to global public health.

Seeing the genome, Professor Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said he feared the virus was both similar to SARS, but also a “completely new virus”.

But the genome has given scientists a tool to track the spread of the virus, according to Cowling.

“It was really important to identify the pathogen and publish it,” says Cowling. “Within days of the release of the footage, many labs (including the University of Hong Kong lab) were able to make diagnostic PCR kits for the new virus and start testing people.

Beyond its value for testing, the publication of the virus’s genome allowed vaccine makers around the world to get to work before much of the world even knew that a viral outbreak was occurring in Wuhan. , in China.

“With the genomic sequence, we were off for the races,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Financial Times in March, on the launch of the COVID-19 vaccine development effort.

US vaccine manufacturer Moderna, which recently received approval to distribute its vaccine in the United States, says he used the genome to develop a COVID-19 vaccine by January 13, just two days after the genome was uploaded.

Researchers at the University of Oxford, which developed a COVID-19 vaccine with British pharmaceutical giant Astrazeneca, also I got to work shortly after the publication of the genetic code.

2021 could be the year these vaccine makers can help control the global COVID-19 pandemic. But their work began with one man’s landmark decision in early 2020.

“January 11 was a turning point in understanding that [the virus] is serious, ”said Zhang Nature in December. “It was a turning point for China. It was a turning point for the world.

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