Welcome to the first Axios Special Report about the science being used to tackle this pandemic — and prepare for future ones.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
In the race to create a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, some researchers are testing new approaches they hope can ultimately produce vaccines in months rather than years, Eileen Drage O'Reilly and I write.
Why it matters: The global COVID-19 outbreak is a harsh reminder of the urgent need to be able to vaccinate large swaths of the population fast — in this pandemic and the next.
What's happening: The world is pinning its hopes on a vaccine for COVID-19 to save lives, return to normal, and emerge from an economic recession.
State of play: There are at least 92 vaccines under development for COVID-19 (see below).
Background: For more than 200 years, vaccines have worked by introducing the body to either a version of the virus itself that doesn't cause disease, or an antigen that's typically a protein on the virus surface. Both prime the immune system and spur it into action should someone encounter the virus.
What's new: DNA and RNA vaccines are a potential avenue for speeding up vaccine development.
But, but, but: No RNA and DNA vaccines have been approved for humans — for any virus.
Several teams are working on RNA vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, including biotech company Moderna and the NIH's Vaccine Research Center. Their RNA vaccine is in Phase I trials at three sites, testing the safety of doses and its ability to induce an immune response.
Meanwhile, Barouch and his collaborators at Johnson & Johnson are taking a different approach, using a non-infectious version of an adenovirus — a common cold virus — to shuttle DNA for an antigen into the body's cells.
The big picture: Testing vaccines quickly and not relying on cells to manufacture them would be a game changer for future pandemics.
The bottom line: This pandemic is a testbed for the next generation of vaccine technologies.
Vaccines under development around the world for the COVID-19 disease are based on different approaches, ranging from the traditional one of using an inactivated form of the virus to experimental gene-based vaccines.
Why it matters: As more vaccine platforms are cleared for safety, the process for approving new vaccines using the same platforms will be faster, says Johns Hopkins' Amesh Adalja.
The bottom line: The more successful candidates — whether traditional or modern — the better.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
In the midst of this pandemic, science is suffering from low standards for some research, a new study argues.
The big picture: Science — which is slow, methodical and redundant — isn't necessarily made for the immediacy and acute public interest brought on by a health crisis, Miriam Kramer reports.
What's happening: The new paper out today in the journal Science warns that many of the clinical trials and studies first published about treatments and other issues involving the current pandemic were designed poorly or had other issues that affected their outcomes.
Yes, but: While the pandemic is exacerbating these problems with misinformation and lax research standards, it isn't the cause of them.
What's next: Many of these issues around varying standards of research and communication could be remedied through better communication among researchers and the agencies funding their work.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/ Axios
We may not have seen a global pandemic like this for the past century — but that doesn't mean we won't see another one for another 100 years.
The big picture: Experts expect infectious disease outbreaks to increase in frequency and are already noting how we can improve moving forward, Eileen writes.
Background: Last year, 15 government and business leaders took part in Event 201, a simulated pandemic exercise based on the spread of a fake coronavirus. The results were brutal.
While COVID-19 is not expected to cause that level of devastation, Johns Hopkins' Tara Sell and Eric Toner, who led Event 201, say there's already a lot to learn from this pandemic and how it differs from what they had prepared for in the exercise.
What's working: Social distancing is "flattening the curve" of infection rates, and the U.S. health care system has not yet been as overwhelmed as originally anticipated.
What's not working: There has been disparate messaging among different authorities, leading to confusion and growing distrust in the government, Sell says. This has left a void that's being filled with misinformation in what the World Health Organization has dubbed an "infodemic."
Another wild card in pandemics is how little is known about any novel pathogen.
"We've found in this outbreak that it's so hard to make decisions because there's so much uncertainty" about how it spreads and case fatality, among other things, Sell says.
What's next: There was a consensus among most leaders in the exercise on the need for a new entity connected to, but not part of, the WHO that could take charge during pandemics.
Lawmakers say volunteers should be allowed to be infected with coronavirus (Jon Cohen — Science)
The people who risked death for immunity (Sarah Zhang — The Atlantic)
Saving coronavirus history from internet oblivion (Abby Ohlheiser and Tanya Basu — MIT Tech Review)
The myth of the disease-spreading migrant (Lourdes Medrano — Undark)
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Viruses change as they spread — the novel coronavirus included.
Why it matters: A key question for the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and treatments is how much a virus mutates — and how efforts to fight it may have to adjust to keep up.
How it works: Viruses mutate as they replicate in host cells, producing thousands of mutations that evolution then acts upon as the virus spreads through a population.
Where it stands: There are no direct measurements of the raw mutation rate of SARS-CoV-2, but it is likely less than influenza and HIV viruses, says Rafael Sanjuán, who studies virus evolution at the University of Valencia in Spain.
The big picture: There are tradeoffs between how fast a virus replicates, how efficiently it is transmitted and how lethal it is.
Keep in mind: Technology has kept up with changes in influenza and other viruses by monitoring mutations, and there are strategies to target multiple regions of a virus with drugs and vaccines.
Zookeeper Lisa Fletcher interacts with Mirri the Dingo on a walk at Perth Zoo on April 23, 2020. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images
There are isolated cases of humans spreading COVID-19 to animals — tigers, cats and dogs — prompting zookeepers and pet owners to wear masks and socially distance from animals in an effort to protect them.
Driving the news: Two cats in New York state are the first U.S. pets to test positive for COVID-19.
"The cats, from different parts of the state, are showing only mild symptoms and are expected to be fine."— NYT's James Gorman writes
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