Combatting COVID-19: How do we tackle emerging variants?
Read time: 3 mins
15 March 2021
What does it mean to say that the virus is mutating? How are we using science to fight against emerging variants? And how are we pursuing therapeutic options to help combat the changing nature of the virus?
You will have no doubt seen the media coverage or heard from physicians about the rapid spread of new strains of SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2), the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. All viruses mutate over time and evolve to evade the body’s immune response and SARS-CoV-2 is no exception.
From the UK to South Africa to Brazil to the United States, new versions of this virus are appearing and spreading quickly throughout communities and some of these variants are causing concern. This is because they may provide the virus with a selective advantage (such as increased transmissibility or disease severity) which can potentially render some vaccines or treatments less effective because of the specific ways they have changed the shape of the virus.
Experts from a wide range of fields are working tirelessly to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and these variant strains of SARS-CoV-2, with vaccines and therapeutics. At GSK, we are committed to developing solutions that can fight the virus both now and into the future.
What are we doing to develop COVID-19 solutions?
Our response to COVID-19 has been one of the broadest in the industry, with potential treatments in development in addition to our vaccine candidates.
With a proven track record in antivirals – from developing the first medicine for the treatment of HIV and AIDS through to numerous different vaccines for viral diseases – we believe that GSK has the history and ability to look for a range of solutions to COVID-19 from prevention to treatment.
Collaborating with other leading healthcare companies and research institutions around the world to develop and deliver solutions for the pandemic is central to our approach.
We have several collaborations to develop COVID-19 vaccines where we are contributing our pandemic adjuvant technology – these have led to three vaccine candidates that are now progressing through clinical testing. As new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerge around the globe, a key priority is to understand how they might impact existing vaccines and those in development. Together with our collaborators, we are exploring strategies that could help address variants. This could include studying vaccine candidates in countries where high levels of variants are spreading, adapting them to increase their level of protection against multiple variants, or potentially developing new vaccines.
In addition to our collaborations to develop adjuvanted protein-based COVID-19 vaccines, we are also working in partnership with CureVac on the development of next-generation mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 that could have the potential to address multiple emerging variants. The aim of this work is to offer broader protection against a variety of different SARS-CoV2 variants and to enable a quick response to new variants that could emerge in the future.
While the development of vaccines has been very successful, it takes time to roll them out and people around the world continue to be infected by and hospitalised due to COVID-19. Also, vaccination will not reach 100% of the world’s population. This is why it’s also important that we continue to pursue diverse therapeutic options to help prevent and treat disease.
In addition to re-purposing and studying investigational medicines that were already in our GSK pipeline, we announced a collaboration with clinical-stage immunology company Vir Biotechnology in April 2020 to develop existing and identify new anti-viral antibodies that could potentially be used as therapeutic or preventive options for COVID-19.
Our COVID-19 therapeutics are currently being tested in a broad range of patients at different stages from prevention to treatment.
How can we combat current and future variants with therapeutics?
From the beginning of our collaboration with Vir, we knew that the monoclonal antibodies (or mAbs) we are developing together would need to anticipate the constantly changing nature of COVID-19.
Unlike vaccines, these treatments directly fight infection without waiting for our immune systems to respond to the virus. They are designed to prevent infection by attaching to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and neutralising the virus – in other words, blocking the virus from entering the human cell.
We knew it was important to select mAbs that bind specifically to a region of the spike protein of the virus that is unlikely to mutate – meaning it is less likely to change over time as the virus continues to spread. Our mAb binds to a part of the protein that remains the same in SARS-CoV-2 as it was during the last major coronavirus outbreak (SARS-CoV) decades ago.
In partnership with Vir, our scientists are continuing to advance critical research on how the virus mutates to evade the immune system. We are pursuing in vitro and in vivo studies, as well as human trials, to determine how this could impact the efficacy of our mAbs so we can protect against constantly emerging variants of concern.
We are committed to learning everything we can about how this virus evolves so that we can add effective vaccines and therapeutics to the collective treatment arsenal, bring an end to this pandemic, and prepare for coronavirus outbreaks of the future.