Tech firm crunches data for next-gen vaccine

Three years after Chinese authorities reported a new coronavirus spreading in Wuhan, the pandemic continues its global rampage. As scientists scramble to keep pace with mutations, an international fund is linking businesses and institutions to develop a new generation of vaccine that protects against not just one type of coronavirus, but a multitude.

Frequent pandemics

In the 20th century, there were 3 pandemics. But in the last 2 decades alone, there have been 4 distinct pandemics and 1 epidemic involving the Ebola virus. Experts say preparing for future pandemics is imperative.

Lessons of the current pandemic

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, was founded in 2017 at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The partnership uses funding from more than 30 governments and philanthropic organizations to finance innovative projects by research bodies and companies around the world.

The work builds on knowledge gained in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when researchers produced a COVID-19 vaccine in just 11 months. This was impressive but left some challenges still to be faced.

"The lesson from the pandemic is that the vaccines we produce rapidly may be very important in reducing the severity of the pandemic or reducing the economic damage" says Richard Hatchett, who has led CEPI since its formation. But he goes on to point out that "The current COVID vaccines may not be perfect."

Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, believes the importance of developing vaccines against wide range of viruses.

"One of the challenges is that the immunity they provide isn't very durable. We need better vaccines against COVID and its variants, but also SARS or MERS or potentially the next coronavirus in the future."

Tech firm joins the quest

In keeping with its focus on innovation, CEPI's partner in Japan is not a medical firm but a tech company known as a world leader in artificial intelligence. NEC group has received $4.8 million in research funding to participate in the project.

Kitamura Akira, General Manager of the AI Drug Development Division of NEC, says their approach is very different from that of a pharmaceutical business.

"As a tech company, we're very good at data science," Kitamura says. "We are making heavy use of that technology, trying to develop new vaccines by combining a mathematical approach with a biological one."

Kitamura Akira from NEC Group, a company that is using artificial intelligence to design next-generation vaccines.

NEC is using AI to crunch vast quantities of data. The company hopes to help develop a single vaccine against more than 100 types of coronaviruses to safeguard against future pandemics.

How AI helps

COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna use the body's immune response by targeting spike proteins on the surface of the virus. These vaccines are intended to prevent viruses from infecting healthy cells. But it has become clear over the last two years that as the spikes mutate and variants emerge, the vaccines become less effective.

As spikes mutate, the vaccines become less effective.

NEC's approach is to look beyond the spikes to the virus as a whole -- all of its genetic information. Researchers use AI to analyze various datasets of the COVID-19 virus over and over. They have located what they call the "hotspots" -- the parts that are not likely to mutate, yet still trigger a strong immune response.

AI looks into all of the virus's genetic information to locate "hotspots" that trigger a strong immune response.

Now the researchers are taking the same approach to analyze 100 other coronaviruses, processing millions of genome datasets to identify hotspots they have in common. The aim is to create one vaccine that can target them all.

AI analyzes 100 coronaviruses to pinpoint hotspots they have in common.

Kitamura says none of this was possible until recently. "Once you've trained the AI on all these processes, when new data comes in, it predicts the location of the hotspots," he says. "It's become a lot more accurate."

Not just one company

The company's researchers alone can't verify a vaccine's safety and efficacy inside the human body. That's where the CEPI network comes in.

"This kind of biological data is scarce and ambiguous. We need other kinds of know-how," Kitamura says. "This is an area where we're really struggling. CEPI is very helpful. They support us not only financially, but they also say they will introduce us to facilities around the world. We're grateful."

100-day mission

Hatchett says that by working with partners around the world, CEPI hopes to acquire the means to create a vaccine within 100 days of the emergence of a new threat.

CEPI's Richard Hatchett says the goal is to be able to respond rapidly to a new threat.

He says it's vital to lay the groundwork before the next virus emerges. To this end, CEPI is investing widely in preparedness. One initiative is what Hatchett calls a "library," for keeping all the accumulating prototype vaccines for future use.

"If the G7 and the G20 countries collaborated and coordinated their efforts, we could build a global vaccine library within 5 to 10 years," he says. "It would take tens of billions of dollars of investment to do that. But if that investment is shared across many countries and many research funding agencies, and those funding agencies are willing to share information with each other and to coordinate their work to a certain extent, I think we could fill out that library very quickly."

F-1 mentality

Hatchett takes an example from sport to illustrate the level of preparedness he hopes to achieve.

"We have often talked about the pit stops for Formula One racing," he says. "Back in the 1970s, a pit stop was fast if it took 30 or 40 seconds. And what happened is that the Formula One teams have developed special tools, special teams, and redesigned the car to be able to do pit stops now in two to three seconds. It's because they focused on the problem and they practiced, practiced and practiced. We've got to bring that same mentality to developing vaccines so that we can get that time down to 100 days."

100-day mission as the North Star

Ishii Ken, professor of the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo, says achieving a universal vaccine is no easy task. Research and development of broadly effective vaccines for flu have been continuing for more than 10 years, but none is available yet. However, he is optimistic that innovative researchers from outside the field, like NEC, can make a difference.

Ishii also says the 100-day mission is a mission for all humanity.

"The 100-day mission is like the North Star. Everyone looks in the same direction and shares the same goal," he says. "The mission is not only for scientists. We have to think from the molecular to the ethical level. We have to think how we can deliver vaccines to grandpas in the countryside, and how to communicate with people who don't believe in vaccines. We have to take this seriously, like we did during the early stage of COVID-19."

Trust matters

Some might balk at being injected with a vaccine created in an unconventional way, especially if the development phase was accelerated. Developers and regulators will need to explain how the latest treatments work, and why they're safe and effective. Building public trust will be essential for the success of any next-generation vaccine.