The Role of Genetic Engineering in the Fight Against Coronavirus

Read about the role of genetic engineering in the fight against coronavirus and find out how it can contribute to developing a vaccine.

The Role of Genetic Engineering in the Fight Against Coronavirus

Borders are closing, planes are canceling flights, and factories are shutting down. Scientists and doctors are working on tests, treatments, and vaccines to provide a medical response. Coronavirus may be one of the greatest trials humanity has faced in decades, but it will not be the last threat we need to overcome. That is why it is time to pay attention to the development of bioscience and allow the use of methods of genetic change.

COVID-19 Statistics

An epidemic of a previously unknown coronavirus that causes pneumonia flared up in January 2020 in the Chinese province of Hubei. Within two weeks, the virus entered the territory of other countries.

The end of December 2019 can be considered the start point when the first cases of infection with a new coronavirus have shown up. Generally, the emergence of the virus is being associated with the wholesale seafood market in the city of Wuhan in China. It was a place where different exotic foods such as bats, snakes or octopus  were sold. And several scientists from China have made a statement that a person could catch the virus by eating one of the exotic foods sold on that market.

During the first month, the number of people infected with the new coronavirus reached almost 6 thousand people, more than 130 people died from pneumonia caused by the virus. The first step that China’s government had made was a closure of all transport links to several megacities, that is quarantining 56 million people in 16 cities of Hubei. Later it turned out that the SARS-CoV virus ( a virus which also appeared in China in 2000s has very similar structure and it is almost 80% identical to the new type of coronavirus. From February 11 a new coronavirus was renamed to SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2). The infectious disease that it causes is called COVID-19. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a pandemic for the disease. In many countries, tough measures have been introduced that restrict the physical communication of people. As the epidemic was contained, the authorities of individual countries began to gradually cancel restrictive measures in order to minimize damage to the economy and prevent social problems.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of people infected with coronavirus infection in the world exceeded 4.801 million people, more than 318.9 thousand died. According to current data from Johns Hopkins University, almost 5 million people were infected in the world, more than 328 thousand died.

The leader in the number of confirmed cases remains the United States, where more than 1.55 million infected have already been identified. Russia takes the second place (308.7 thousand), Brazil ⏤ the third (291 thousand), Great Britain ⏤ the fourth (249.6 thousand), and Spain ⏤ the fifth (232.5 thousand).

Following the first wave of a pandemic around the world, the second may begin. This was stated by a representative of the World Health Organization, Melita Vujnovic, warning the authorities against rash easing of quarantine.

The United States, meanwhile, wanted to make China pay for the damages caused by coronavirus worldwide. Washington asks China to allocate nine trillion dollars and spend it on the fight against COVID-19. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that more than 90 thousand Americans have already died in the country, another 36 million are left without work.

Scientists at Tongji Medical College of China and Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan have identified possible causes of higher male mortality from coronavirus. It is said that women with a severe form of the disease produce 20-25% more antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. In addition, a high level of testosterone can suppress immunity, which causes a higher infection.

The Role of Genetic Engineering in the Emergence of a New Coronavirus

The rumors that appeared on social networks that the new coronavirus was synthesized in the laboratory of some Chinese institute have no foundation and only mislead people. According to Financial Times , this was stated by one of the world's leading experts in tracking the outbreak of the disease caused by the 2019-nCoV virus, Trevor Bedford at a conference in Seattle (USA).

Bedford said that there was no evidence that its origin was related to genetic engineering. And scientists have evidence that mutations in the virus are fully consistent with natural evolution.

According to Bedford, one of the most likely scenarios is that a bat transmitted the virus to another mammal 20–70 years ago. This intermediate carrier, which scientists have not calculated yet, first transferred it to a person in Wuhan in late November ⏤ early December 2019. Bedford, a leading specialist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, now leads the international Nextstrain community of scientists who analyze the genomes of the 2019-nCoV virus, which causes COVID-19 pneumonia.

Earlier, the World Health Organization also stated that there is no evidence to support the Washington Times version of the origin of the 2019-nCoV virus from the institute's laboratory in Wuhan. According to WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic , the organization "has no evidence to support this theory."

How genetic engineering has began to be associated with COVID-19? CRISPR technology (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a biological system for changing DNA. This technology, also known as genetic engineering, can change the future of the entire planet.

It sounds like a rather bold statement, but it is precisely this opinion that many leading world genetics and biochemists adhere to.

CRISPR was discovered in 2012 by a molecular biologist, Professor Jennifer Doudna. Her team of scientists studied how bacteria protect themselves from viral infections. Now Professor Doudna and her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier are among the most influential scientists in the world. The natural mechanism that they discovered in the course of their research can be used by biologists to make point changes in any DNA.

The professor told BBC that since they published study four years ago, many world laboratories had begun to apply this technology to animals, plants, people, fungi, other bacteria ⏤ in other words, practical on every studied organism. When a virus attacks a bacterium, it produces genetic material that matches the genetic sequence of the attacker.

This material, combined with the key protein Cas9, can attach to the DNA of a virus, crack the genetic code, and neutralize the virus.

Now scientists can apply the same scheme to insert new elements into DNA, to remove or correct its parts. This process is so accurate that scientists can go through the billions of chemical combinations that make up the DNA of a cell to make a specific key change in the genetic code.

It is also important that this is a simple and inexpensive method. Therefore, it will accelerate all types of research ⏤ from creating genetically modified models of human diseases in animals to searching for DNA mutations that provoke the occurrence of diseases or, on the contrary, protect against them.

When and how can we begin to feel the effects of CRISPR treatment? Given that this technology is only a few years old, it is not surprising that testing on patients has not begun yet, but some experiments are already at the planning stage.

How CRISPR Is Related to Coronavirus?

Synthetic biologists began using CRISPR to synthesize parts of the coronavirus, trying to come up with a vaccine against COVID-19. They hope to be able to start mass production very quickly. The best design for such a vaccine is calculated on a computer. Obviously, AI and computer simulations are combined in order to synthetically create a vaccine.

This speeds up the development of the vaccine and shortens its life from years to months. Regulators have shown that in times of crisis, testing and vaccination procedures have to be approved as soon as possible.

Among other things, CRISPR allows you to "search" for specific genes, as well as virus genes. This has made it possible to create quick and easy procedures for testing patients for coronavirus.

Ultimately, gene editing can enable us to boost humanity's immunity by altering our genes and making us more resistant to viruses and bacteria.

The Contribution to Discovering Vaccine

Hundreds of laboratories around the world are developing a vaccine against the new coronavirus. And most of the popular engineering platforms like Engre are full with work to come up with appropriate solution.  The Latvian Center for Biomedical Research has joined these efforts voluntarily. In a few weeks it will be clear whether the method chosen by Latvian scientists works or not.

A dozen and a half enthusiasts in two laboratories are developing the vaccine at the Center for Biomedical Research. A platform with an artificially created virus has now been designed, where specialists are trying to install a small element of the coronavirus.

The chairman of Scientific Council of the Center for Biomedical Research Andris Zeltins said that it was technically necessary to achieve the creation of a so-called artificial virus, that was, virus-like particles. The body recognizes these particles as infection and forms a strong immune response. Of course, it can not cause infection because it is a plant virus.

Latvian scientists have decided to abandon the most commonly used method of creating a vaccine using a weakened virus because there is a risk of infection.

Genetically engineered vaccines usually take ten to fifteen years to develop. The requirements are very strict. But the fight against the coronavirus is accelerating. However, Latvian scientists predict that the first vaccine against coronavirus may be ready for the next winter season at best.

"We are now at a technical research station, we are testing whether this idea can be technically implemented. The first indications show that it is possible, that we can get the appropriate drug, which would be tested on animals before submitting it to clinical trials", Zeltins said.

The good news is that the new coronavirus is probably less variable than, for example, the flu virus. But information on the causative agent of COVID-19 is still insufficient.

Now scientists are waiting for biological material from patients who have contracted coronavirus in Latvia. Negotiations have already begun, but it is unclear when this material will be brought.

Within a few weeks, Latvian virologists promise to explain the technical side of the vaccine they are developing, and then try to attract funding. Over time, many coronavirus vaccines are projected to be developed around the world, and commercial production will be launched for the best of them. Who knows, maybe Latvian volunteer scientists will be able to achieve this.

Turkish Scientists Are Close to Creating a New Type of Coronavirus Vaccine

A group of scientists from the University of Aegean began testing a prototype antigen, the creation of which would be the first step in preparing a domestic DNA vaccine to protect against a new type of coronavirus.

The project is being implemented in coordination with the Institute of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology of the Marmara Research Center under the Council of Scientific and Technical Research of Turkey.

The project for the development of a vaccine and drug against Covid-19 is supported by the Center for the Development of Medicinal Products and Pharmacokinetic Studies of Aegean University. Based on the results of round-the-clock work, a prototype of the antigen was created.

A teacher at the Aegean University School of Medicine, Dr. Merth Doshkaya, told that according to the World Health Organization, over 50 centers around the world are working on a new type of coronavirus vaccine.

“The work carried out in this direction in Turkey is almost at the same stage as in the world. Five foreign centers have already begun clinical trials of vaccines”, the doctor said.

The scientist noted that the genetic structure of Covid-19 is changing, and therefore, the pathogenicity of the virus increases.

One More Way to Trick Coronavirus

To create a vaccine against coronavirus, it is necessary to apply genetic technologies. And it may be necessary to edit the genome while creating preclinical models. Such a version was said by the head of the laboratory of molecular mechanisms of immunity of the V.A. Institute of Molecular Biology Engelhardt, Sergey Nedospasov.

The scientist added that it could take several months, and more than one year to complete vaccine trials. He also recalled that those infected with coronavirus can be treated with plasma transfusion from recovered patients who have ready-made antibodies to the virus in their blood and who do not suffer from other viral diseases like hepatitis B, C, syphilis, HIV, and tuberculosis.

The scientist also noted that the main disadvantage of this method of treatment is the risk of transmitting another infection to the patient. Therefore, it is more cautious to use purified preparations of total antibodies from the blood of those who have been ill.

He also said that the medicine can be obtained by artificially creating neutralizing antibodies. The disadvantage of this method will be that the protection of the body will be temporary.

The most reliable way is vaccination since vaccination produces not only the antibodies themselves in the body, but also the lymphocytes that produce the antibodies.

Texas Genetic Engineering Company Proposed Their Vaccine

Scientists from the genetic engineering company Greffex, based in Houston, Texas, claim to have created a vaccine against coronavirus.

The company reported to journalists that the first stage of vaccine development had been completed and it was ready for animal testing and evaluation of this product by US regulatory authorities.

This happened after British scientists announced that they had begun testing their development, and researchers from the university announced that they had created a compound that they thought could serve as a vaccine.

There are a lot of scientists around the world who are striving to find the vaccine, although they use different approaches. However, it is a well known fact that developing a vaccine is only the first step. The next one is to spread it around the world. Most estimates show that testing and production can take anywhere from 17 months to two years, although Greffex has not announced any schedule yet.

Greffex notes that for safety's sake, the scientists did not use any form of the coronavirus itself ⏤ neither live nor inactivated ⏤ to make its vaccine. However, coronavirus was so poorly studied and had already killed enough people. Therefore, the scientists at Greffex did not want to risk so they built their adenovirus-based vaccine instead.

Adenoviruses are one of the most widespread causes of viral respiratory infections, accounting for between two and five percent of colds. They are also widely used in the manufacture of vaccines.

Other companies base their vaccine designs on those that have been developed earlier during the SARS outbreak but were canceled after the virus disappeared within six months.

Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin were forced to recreate the molecule that makes the swept protein on the surface of the coronavirus (now known as SARS-CoV-2) to obtain a three-dimensional map of the structure. And the compound that they made can itself work like a vaccine, causing an immune response to the virus.

Like the University of Austin team and their colleagues at Moderna Therapeutics, the Greffex team believes their production process is one of the fastest for vaccine production.

"The trick when creating a vaccine is to scale the vaccine and then pass it to patients ⏤ and here we have an advantage over other companies," said the general Greffex Director John Price.

The US National Institute of Health provided the company with a grant which was equal to $19 million to develop a platform that would contribute to discovering a vaccine. This platform was supposed to allow adding a few specific ingredients to its main formula so that they could quickly come up with a vaccine.

Now that the candidate vaccine has been created, it remains to be tested on animals, then clinical trials of the first phase in humans will begin, then two more phases of human trials and, ultimately, approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

Vaccine development can take more than ten years, from initial development to the final product. Even with all the possible accelerations, the testing required by the FDA is rigorous and time-consuming, so rapid production of the vaccine will still take from 18 months to a year.

COVID-19 Drug Release Dates

Certain expert groups declare their ambitious goals to develop the vaccine in a couple of weeks. German scientists are critical of such statements. Epidemiologist Alexander Kekule, who heads the Institute of Medical Microbiology at the University Hospital in Galle, believes that the coronavirus vaccine will not be available on the pharmaceutical market until 2021. “We won’t have a vaccine until the fall of 2020,” Kekule predicts. And it points to difficulties in developing a vaccine against coronaviruses since their genomes are subject to rapid changes.

This is confirmed by a study by Chinese scientists who found that there are two types of SARS CoV-2 coronavirus. The first one is s-COV strain and it is much more common. And the second one is l-Cov-2 strain which is much more dangerous. The genomes of coronaviruses changing are the reason that there is still no vaccine against the usual, seasonal viruses that cause colds. By the way, they are also coronaviruses, but less dangerous than SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, and MERS.

The accelerated development and launch of a vaccine against coronavirus on the pharmaceutical market, as was the case with the Ebola virus, cannot be expected, because coronavirus is much less dangerous. Therefore, the issue of urgency is less relevant. But widespread vaccination of the population means that many healthy people will receive a vaccination from coronavirus. And in this case, unlike the Ebola virus, it is better not to rush with the use of the vaccine.

It is much more important to exclude the possible harm from vaccination than to urgently vaccinate the coronavirus to all healthy people who rarely have a serious illness.

In addition, there are already medicines to cure the disease, if it is difficult. One of these drugs was developed and used against the Ebola virus.