Here, Open Access Government interview Dr Babita Agrawal, Professor in the Department of Surgery, University of Alberta to discuss the continued need for research into vaccines and immunotherapeutics
Dr Babita Agrawal’s productive career in the field of immunology, researching novel immunotherapeutics, vaccines and vaccine platforms includes those using an adenovirus vector and modified-peptides. As an established investigator with proven leadership in immunotherapy and vaccine research, she has received various awards and recognitions for her research achievements and has served as a scientific expert in numerous provincial, national and international grant panels including National Institutes of Health (NIH and NCI) U.S.A., Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and granting agencies from Hong Kong, China, UK, and South Africa.
Her research focuses on analysing immune regulation and innate and adaptive immune responses to design and test new vaccine and immuno-therapeutic strategies. Dr Agrawal has most recently been focused on identifying the ways in which pathogens trigger, modify or evade protective immune responses and how this can be fine-tuned for our benefit to develop novel vaccines. Besides conventional vaccine concepts, Dr Agrawal also seeks to employ novel immunoregulatory molecules, the unique interrelationship of immunity with microbiota, and cross-reactive immunity, in her quest. Here, we discuss more about this.
What are some new frontiers being discovered in vaccines and immunotherapeutics?
Prior to the COVID pandemic, vaccines against infectious diseases were largely based on inactivated/attenuated pathogens or recombinant protein antigens. However, for decades, researchers have been studying various other platforms of vaccines such as adenovirus vector, mRNA, DNA, modified peptides etc. Recently, there is a greater emphasis on adjuvant-less vaccines. With respect to immuno-therapeutics, monoclonal antibody and innate immune-based approaches have taken a central role in the discovery phase.
Tell us about the importance of the unprecedented speed at which SARS-CoV-2 vaccines have been brought forward for mass vaccination.
Across the globe, scientists, pharma and governments must be first congratulated for their commitment to bringing forward and implementing multiple highly efficacious vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 for mass vaccination. The unprecedented speed at which both adenovirus-based and mRNA-based vaccine technologies have been clinically tested and approved for public use, is truly spectacular. Both of these vaccine platforms are the first to be approved as SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, and there is no precedence for these in previous vaccines. This does not mean that these technologies developed overnight or within one year.
In fact, hundreds of scientists in academia including my laboratory, biotech and pharma have been tenaciously working on in-depth understanding of these vaccine platforms, and their contributions over past several decades must also be acknowledged. The cumulative basic and applied research into these technologies has been crucial for the fast delivery of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. It is with their hard work and commitment as well, that the SARS-CoV-2 antigenic sequences could be embedded into these experimental vaccine platforms, to make them successful. Importantly, various governments and regulatory agencies must be commended for their financial supports, timely review and recommendation of the emergency use approvals.
Despite this, why is the continuing emergence of pathogenic and more infectious SARS-CoV-2 variants and their spread across the globe throughout 2021 still very much a worry?
Ideally, if 100% of the world’s population could be fully vaccinated with a highly protective preventive COVID vaccine in a very short time, we would be able to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2 among people and mitigate the pandemic completely. The current COVID-19 vaccines are not preventive, meaning they don’t protect from infection, but they are highly effective in protecting from severe health consequences, hospitalisations and mortality resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infections.
However, there is an ongoing race between the spread of the virus and vaccination. The larger the unvaccinated population is, or the more time it takes to vaccinate people, the more the virus replicates and the more mutations in viral variants occur with potentially more infectivity and pathogenicity. And the virus finds a safe haven in unvaccinated people to accomplish the continuous cycles of replication and mutation, which are currently driving the pandemic and emergence of variants. Besides these, the waning of vaccine-induced protective immunity over time is becoming a serious concern and several governments have initiated booster vaccination at least in people with pre- existing conditions. Amongst all these, there is a continuous need for highly protective vaccines that can prevent infection in humans, and therefore seriously limit the human reservoir of COVID-19.
Above all, widespread worldwide vaccination efforts must circumvent two major obstacles: Vaccine hesitancy and vaccine inequity.
What do you hope for the future roles of vaccines and immunotherapeutics?
Vaccines and immunotherapeutics will certainly play a very decisive role in combatting COVID-19, and any future pandemics. It is expected that coronaviruses, their subtypes and variants, may cause future pandemics. In the last two decades, there have been several real threats of viral pandemics. Not only coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-1 in 2003 and MERS in 2012), influenza viruses with pandemic potential have also threatened humanity a few times during the last two decades of this millennium.
Therefore, it is evident that there is an enhanced hazard and opportunity for common respiratory viruses to instigate pandemics in the near future as well. However, with a fresh experience and perspective on real pandemics, the public, scientists, pharma and government must all remain vigilant and prepare themselves better to nip any future pandemic in the bud. To achieve this, besides enhanced public health surveillance, extensive research must continue to investigate potential pan-coronavirus vaccine candidates and vaccine platforms, which are highly effective in preventing infection and which are effective against subtype, variants and mutants of coronaviruses.
How have vaccines and immunotherapies exceeded expectations over the COVID-19 pandemic?
Retrospectively, in 2020 I would not have predicted that an adenovirus and/ or an mRNA based vaccine platform could be so successful and so broadly used to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Fast forward to 2021, the success of the current COVID-19 vaccines clearly demonstrates the potential of basic health research into novel vaccine technologies, saves lives and is having a positive impact on a dangerous pandemic globally.
Eradication of smallpox from the world is one humble example from history of the real power of vaccines for improving the health and life of humankind. The continued need for research into vaccines and immunotherapeutics, cannot be undermined and must be emphasised worldwide.
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© 2019. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.