[Q&A] Behind Malaysian scientists’ work on COVID-19 vaccine


Even as the clock continues to tick in search for a vaccine for COVID-19, the Institute for Medical Research Malaysia (IMR) is collaborating with Malaysian Vaccines and Pharmaceutical Sdn Bhd (MVP) and Universiti Malaya Tropical Infectious Diseases Research and Education Centre (TIDREC) to test existing local vaccines against the COVID-19 agent.

Testing is currently being conducted in TIDREC, one of Malaysia’s modular biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) facilities, previously used to study highly pathogenic agents such as MERS Coronavirus and Nipah Virus.

We speak to Rashidah Ibrahim, Executive Director of Malaysian Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals (MVP) Sdn Bhd to get the latest update on this development.

What is the current progress made by the Malaysian team in developing a vaccine for COVID-19? How many scientists are currently in this team? 

“There are few options of developing vaccines for COVID-19 proposed by several Malaysian scientists. Our team is expected to start a preliminary study to develop vaccine candidates in early April and it consists of 10 members from IMR, MVP and TIDREC.”

Can you explain what the process is like to develop a vaccine for COVID-19? 

“It is not an easy task to develop a human vaccine and especially so for a pandemic like this. We have to act very fast yet develop the safest and most efficient vaccine! Basically, we need to find a suitable candidate for the vaccine which involves the isolation of  SARS-CoV-2 virus (done by IMR) and conduct several laboratory tests with the existing vaccines produced by MVP. Once neutralized, the vaccine candidate will be tested under animal study before undergoing human clinical trial through phase by phase. All these tests will be conducted in BSL-3 facilities at TIDREC, UM.”

We understand that the existing local vaccines used in this research will be those for the Infectious Bronchitis virus (IBV), an avian coronavirus. Why this approach? 

“Israeli scientists claimed that they are developing a vaccine for COVID-19 from avian IBV due to high genetic similarity between those viruses. Based on that findings, we want to try to use our local vaccine IBV to develop the vaccine for COVID-19.”

How long and how much funding do we need for this?

“This vaccine development will at least take a few months to test and develop before human clinical trials. For this project, we estimated the cost to be around RM850,000 for the test and vaccine to be developed.” 

How do we ensure the safety of the vaccine in a short period of development?

“Even though it is a short period of development to ensure the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, it will be tested in animals first before we embark into the human clinical trial. On top of that every SOP and guidelines will be strictly adhered to.”

What is the next stage once we develop this human vaccine? 

“Proceed with Phase 3 human clinical trial before scaling up the production for the masses.”

Under normal circumstances, vaccine development usually takes 15 to 20 years. How long can we expect this vaccine to be available?

“This vaccine is expected to be available in less than 12 months because it is derived from the vaccine virus of avian IBV that is known to be harmless in humans (non-zoonotic).”

COVID-19 will most likely be a bygone pandemic. How long will the market lifespan be for this vaccine? What if the virus evolves?

“According to experts, this SAR-CoV-2 virus mutates at a slower rate than any other respiratory viruses like influenza. It is expected that a one-time vaccination will be enough to confer protection against COVID-19 once the vaccine is successfully developed. If the virus evolves, vaccination might be required to all newborn babies as world birth rate escalates.”

**All previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/

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