UK vaccine rollout ‘setting the benchmark’ says Freeman
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The new project, led by the university’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is tipped to boost the UK’s ability to rapidly deploy effective vaccines against new variants of Covid. And the same technology that facilitated the development of mRNA Covid vaccines, such as the Moderna and Pfizer jabs, will be used to tackle future pandemics and threats including HIV, Malaria and Zika virus.
In non-emergency times, the unit’s technology and research will help develop new vaccines and treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders and cardiovascular conditions.
The project will focus on developing messenger RNA vaccines or mRNA vaccines, which have the potential to be produced quickly and more efficiently than standard jabs.
The goal is to cut vaccine development from months to just week, as was the case during the Covid pandemic.
The first RNA-based Covid vaccines, for example, were developed within 63 days of the virus being sequenced.
Combined with accelerated clinical trials and the suspension of typical regulatory bureaucracy, billions of doses of the life-saving vaccines were released to the public.
To date, the World Health Organization (WHO) data indicates more than 8.2 billion vaccine doses have already been administered.
mRNA vaccines work by giving the body a set of instructions on how to produce a certain protein that will trigger an immune response to a viral threat.
In the case of the coronavirus that causes Covid, mRNA vaccines instruct cells on how to create an S protein found on the surface of the virus, which causes the body to create antibodies to fight the infection.
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A regular vaccine, in stark contrast, would insert a deactivated virus or weakened germ into the body to trigger an immune response.
The key difference, according to the University of Sheffield, is that mRNA vaccines shift the “most difficult and complex parts of manufacturing” to the human body.
But the university’s researchers fear the mRNA vaccine research is being slowed down due to limited access to the manufacturing process and the knowledge of how to make the treatments.
Dr Zoltán Kis, who is leading the project, said: “The vaccines produced for COVID-19 have shown us what is possible using RNA technology.
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“In one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of our generation, RNA technology has demonstrated the ability to change the timeline for developing and delivering a vaccine from years to months.
“This is a versatile and transformative technology that can be used to develop and mass-produce vaccines and treatments for other diseases.
“To achieve this, we need to ensure that researchers across the globe have access to the very latest, state-of-the-art RNA manufacturing processes to support their research, development and large-scale production programmes.”
The project is being funded and supported by the Wellcome Leap R3 programme, which Dr Kis said is helping scientists develop and to innovate the vaccine manufacturing process.
The programme aims to build a network of vaccine manufacturing facilities all across the globe in response to future threats and pandemics, as well as present diseases.
Dr Kis added: “COVID-19 has shown us how important it is to be prepared so we can respond to pandemics quickly.
“By improving the way we can make vaccines and by distributing these production processes across the globe we will be able to respond to future pandemics much faster and a lot more effectively.
“In non-pandemic times, these production processes implemented across the globe can be used to produce vaccine and therapeutic candidates that we desperately need against a wide range of diseases.”
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