Quirks and Quarks

We need vaccines for the coronavirus — here's how we'll make them

Scientists around the world are working on different strategies to develop a safe and effective vaccine as quickly as possible

Scientists are using variety of strategies to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus

Novavax labs in Maryland is one of the many labs around the world working on a vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

Scientists are exploring diverse strategies to develop a vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus, and already some promising candidates are undergoing early safety tests in humans.

The hope is that a massive simultaneous effort by many teams will find the ones that are going to be safe and effective. 

"We can actually find the vaccines that will actually work quicker than if we did one at a time," said Stephen Barr, an associate professor at Western University in London, Ontario whose team is one of many in Canada working on a vaccine.

Vaccines stimulate our bodies to produce specific virus-fighting antibodies so that when we encounter the virus, immune system already knows how to protect us. 

The immunity provided by the vaccine can also help protect the unvaccinated from infection as the virus can't easily spread through a population that has a significant population of people who are immune. 

A researcher at the University of Pittsburgh works on a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. (UPMC/Reuters)

Spike protein on virus a promising vaccine target

Many of the vaccine strategies are targeting the spikes that stick out from the surface of the COVID-19 coronavirus. These spikes are what the virus uses to attach to our cells to infect them. 

If we can get our bodies' immune system to make antibodies against the spikes, then should we encounter the real SARS-CoV-2 virus, those antibodies would bind to the viral spikes and prevent it from entering our cells. 

Barr told Quirks & Quarks' host Bob McDonald about some of the innovative ways scientists are trying to get the virus' spike proteins into our bodies for our immune system to respond to. 

This 3D image of the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic shows how the virus surface is covered in spike proteins that enable the virus to enter and infect human cells. (NIH/Reuters)

His own lab is essentially decorating another virus that's harmless to humans with coronavirus proteins, including its spike proteins, to trick our immune system into developing antibodies against it.

Other vaccines are based on introducing only the spike protein — along with an adjuvant to boost the immune response. Still a third approach introduces the genetic material for the spike protein in order to co-opt our own cells' machinery to build the spike fragment — harmless in itself — to present to our immune system.

The ultimate goal is to develop a vaccine that can give us durable immunity to the COVID-19 coronavirus, but at this point even temporary immunity would be a huge help in our global effort to end the pandemic.

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting