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San Diego Lab's Potential Coronavirus Vaccine Could Help Beyond Outbreak

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The DNA-based coronavirus vaccine under development at a San Diego lab could address the current global outbreak as well as the next.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Health officials are reporting more coven 19 Corona virus cases and deaths across the country. In California, the number of confirmed cases is up to 50 meanwhile, researchers are trying to pump out a vaccine against the virus, but that can drag on while scientists search for the part of the virus that activates the body's defense without causing the illness. A newer approach of using DNA is far cheaper, easier, and doesn't use the virus at all, but no DNA based vaccine has ever been licensed. KPBS health reporter Teran mento goes into the San Diego lab and meets the team trying to break that barrier.

Speaker 2: 00:40 Brown liquids sloshes inside glass cylinders and a countertop at a Novio pharmaceuticals. The noise of brewing a DNA based vaccine isn't overwhelming, but the stench smells like you're in a college bar. You have expect your feet to stick to the floor as the scent of stale beer lingers inside the second floor. Lab research associate Joseph fader cracks open the door to combat the odor. Smelly. He says it's just the smell of ecoli. Bacteria used to grow the DNA medicine.

Speaker 3: 01:09 So one of the ways that I've been explaining it is like say your favorite fruit is strawberries, right? You like strawberries, but you don't like eating the plant, but you need the plant to grow the strawberries. So the poli cells are the plants

Speaker 2: 01:20 and an OVO is trying to grow life saving fruit amid a raging storm as the Corona virus is battering cities around the globe, including the U S the company is raising to offer the world a life raft with its DNA based vaccine. It uses sort of a blueprint of the virus that tells the immune system how to build its defense without ever introducing the germ. And Novio is senior vice president. Kate Broderick is at the helm. Well, I'd go up to the spar legacy even today. I'm like, Oh, the lead researcher at the center of a Novios coronavirus vaccine operation says she manages the long days by starting with yoga helps so much because otherwise your brain never turns off and ends the days with what many other working parents use to unwind a glass of wine, any kind of wine. A very large one, don't really care. So let's go in between those brief moments.

Speaker 2: 02:13 She's pushing the vaccine forward. The company has made progress just weeks after an international body in Europe asked it to join the Corona virus vaccine race. We have now started testing the vaccine in the lab. Um, we are extremely encouraged by the data, but the positive results in a tray don't always mean a vaccine will prevent disease in humans and Novios other vaccines for Zika. Merz and HPV have shown positive results in the first two out of three trials. But no DNA based vaccine has overcome the final hurdle. If ENOVIA does navigate those uncharted waters, it'll generate a master vaccine that could be quickly modified to combat whatever virus is the next to emerge. So the manufacturing remains the same that we, we monitor,

Speaker 4: 03:00 uh, formulate the vaccine and the vial remains the same. That way we deliver the vaccine remains the same. But just that tiny little piece of genetic information differs. And so every time we make progress on developing a vaccine like this, we can add that learning to the next outbreak or the next bite is that we talk

Speaker 2: 03:17 and Novio is trying to make it to human trials by summer, a five month turnaround. The final steps to get there are happening outside the lab and behind the desk of Stephanie Ramos.

Speaker 4: 03:28 It's a very um, intensive process.

Speaker 2: 03:33 The director of preclinical development is helping pull together reports, results, summaries and other information that can total to more than 8,000 pages.

Speaker 4: 03:41 And that all gets into like a massive document that's sent to the FDA

Speaker 2: 03:46 process is expedited under the outbreak circumstance. So that means a lot of overtime and Indian takeout,

Speaker 4: 03:52 you have one Indian meal you're good for like the rest of the day.

Speaker 2: 03:56 She says the long hours and weekends are worth it because the climbing death toll from Corona virus reminds the researchers what they're up against.

Speaker 4: 04:04 It makes you feel good that you're doing everything you can to, to do your part to get that vaccine out there faster.

Speaker 2: 04:13 Ramos is approaching this not just as a scientist, a handmade mother's day gift sits on her desk.

Speaker 4: 04:19 Do take to heart what is going into people. You know, we're not just here to say check. Yeah we did our job check. Yeah, we did it first. No.

Speaker 2: 04:30 Since our interview, another company announced its experimentally designed vaccine for Corona virus is ready for the first stage of human trials and Novio is still working toward that milestone. But achieving successful results will be the bigger deal, not only for this virus, but for the next one that scientists know is coming, but aren't sure when or where. Taryn mento KPBS news joining me is KPBS health reporter Attarian mento and Taren. Welcome. Thank you. How many trials do new vaccines need to go through before they're ready for the public? And how long does that process take? So it's three trials generally. The first one usually is very small group of people looks for safety and before it even gets to people, it's tested in the lab and on animals. It's mandated to be tested on animals and that's checking for safety as well. And there's a lot of certifications they got to put out there, um, before they say, um, they add this is okay to put in humans.

Speaker 2: 05:26 And then the second one is kind of looking for, well, is it effective? Is it generating the immune response that we want? And it's a little bit larger group of people. The third one is thousands of people and it also kind of has a variety of different ages and, um, health conditions, uh, that we might see among the population that this vaccine would ultimately go in for the purpose that it's designed to, to prevent a certain disease. Um, and so how long it can take, um, like years, you know, it can take a really long time. Um, how quickly can it be? And we don't know. I, that's what we're gonna see with the, the race to, to develop this vaccine. But there's some estimates out there that like the earliest could be maybe next year. Can you explain a bit more about how this DNA approach to producing a vaccine differs from the usual way of vaccine has produced?

Speaker 2: 06:14 So, typically a vaccine is using some part of the virus that the vaccine is trying to prevent and it's, it's, you know, a weakened version and inactive version part of it. Um, and so usually that's so it goes into the human without infecting them with that illness. Um, and, and then therefore triggers the body's natural defense response to fight it off. With DNA. You're not using the actual virus. And in fact, the company that I talked to and Novio pharmaceuticals, they don't even have the virus on site. It's basically as best as I can describe it, is, um, it's kind of like the instruction manual for the virus. So therefore it kind of is talking to the body about how to develop the response, but it's not actually using the virus to get that reaction. In order to fashion this kind of DNA to produce, uh, a blueprint of coven 19 virus, does the company have to actually decode the viral DNA or has that already been done?

Speaker 2: 07:16 So in this instance, uh, the, um, officials, health health officials over in China publicly posted the genetic sequencing of this virus. And that is what, and Novio took a look at to design design its vaccine and, and Novio Kate Broderick that I interviewed, she said that they designed their vaccine based on that within three hours you said a Novio has been tapped by an international body in Europe to get into the covert 19 vaccine race. Which body is that? The, that's the coalition for epidemic preparedness innovations, also referred to as sappy and they're in Norway and it's a group of individuals from health organizations or official health organizations in various countries. Africa. There's a representative from the CDC on there, but also private companies. Uh, the Melinda and bill Gates foundation, uh, they're a part of it as well. So it's a mixture of all these individuals that have the expertise and, and the, the means, uh, to, to try and find innovative heads in the name approaches to addressing global health matters like this.

Speaker 2: 08:19 I wonder why the CDC or other U S health agency itself hasn't directly tapped in OVO to develop something like this. So the federal government is backing and supporting development of some vaccines. One of the companies I believe is Johnson and Johnson. Um, but you know, there's lots of different efforts going on out there, lots of different companies working on this. And in Novio actually was invited to the white house just yesterday to speak about their approach to designing a vaccine. So president Trump did get an update from a number of different pharmaceutical companies including a Novio. Um, but so far it does look like that they're not backing directly in Novio but they are other companies, uh, from your report. I, I understand that at this point, none of ENOVIA those vaccines have been okayed for public public use for broad public use or that they've been licensed for anyone to be able to access.

Speaker 2: 09:17 Yes, they have been received approval by the FDA to, to test these. They've got phase one, phase two, and they have a couple in the phase three trials right now. So they are actually being used on humans, but we're looking to make sure that they are safe, which they've proven in the earlier rounds that they're effective, which there's indication that they are and that they are comparable to the vaccines that we have out there. So is it doing, you know, equal to or better than what's already in existence. And so that's what they're really looking for in these third trials. But Kate Broderick, who I spoke with, you know, she'll tell you that based on testing, they do believe that some of their vaccines are equal to or better than what's out there. Um, we're waiting for the, you know, the official peer review publication of that and they've got two in the works right now.

Speaker 2: 10:08 If this DNA based vaccine approach does ultimately work, how will that change the speed and efficiency of the fight against emerging viral diseases? So, talking to a few people, theoretically it would make it quicker, cheaper, more effective to just develop something. Um, you know, Kate referred to it as a plug and play. Every time that there's a new virus, they can just insert that genetic sequencing. And then you have the vaccine because they already know the process to develop it. They've already, um, everything else is the same except for that tiny little piece of information so we could make it much quicker and much cheaper. Um, but you know, it hasn't gotten there yet, so we'll have to watch to see how that does play out. I've been speaking with KPBS health reporter Taryn mento. Taryn, thanks. Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.