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Beyond a vaccine: fighting the new coronavirus will depend on new research and local investment in science and technology

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Brazil celebrated, in the last month, the approval of the emergency use of the Coronavac and AstraZeneca vaccines by the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa). The start of immunization in the country was a big step in the war against Covid-19, but many battles still have to be won. On the front line, an army of researchers is deployed to get to know the enemy better.

In Brazilian universities and research centers, there is an intense search for answers about Covid-19. Among them, the effectiveness of the doses already created for certain variants of SARS-COV-2 that appeared in Brazil, the time of immunization and even what is the ideal test to find out if the person vaccinated is infected.

“The expected scenario is for Covid-19 to become endemic, which means that it keeps circulating and transmitting for long periods across the country. The trend is to replace viral types over time, so it is possible that the vaccine needs to be modified from time to time, as with the flu, ”ponders the researcher at the UFMG Vaccines and Diagnostics Technology Center (CT Vacinas) and coordinator of the diagnostics subnet of the Virus Network of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Ana Paula Fernandes.

For her, this reinforces the need for investment in local research, because, even with immunization in large scale, strategies will be needed to live with the virus for the next years. In Brazil, UFMG – CT Vacinas is part of Virus Network, a committee formed by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovations that brings together scientists and specialists for the development of diagnoses, treatments, vaccines and the production of knowledge about the virus. Fundep has a partnership with CT Vacinas and has developed an exclusive follow-up to give celerity to the acquisition of inputs, services and equipment. It also will help accelerate the people hiring process to amplify the COVID-19 tests quality.

Since January of last year, Ana Paula coordinates actions to create serological tests, which are already being used by the Federal, State and other governments, expanding the testing capacity. The team of researchers was formed exclusively to study the disease and has been supporting the government and society, behind the scenes.

“Although we had scarce funds, even before the disease arrived in Brazil, we were on the alert, studying, preparing, generating inputs. In March 2020, when the cases arrived, we were already able to make a diagnosis. But, for this, doctoral students who were developing diagnoses for other diseases abandoned their projects to dedicate themselves to Covid,” says the researcher.

Now the challenge is different, as she says: “The scenario has changed. Everything is changing very quickly over the course of the pandemic. Now, we need to understand how the immunity of the population as a whole will work. The diagnoses have to differentiate who is responding to the vaccine or is infected. And that for different types of immunizers”, she explains.

For the president of the Brazilian Society for Virology (SBV), Flávio Guimarães da Fonseca, the start of immunization in the country is historic and should be celebrated for representing what he calls “tribute to hope”. But he underlines that emergency vaccine approval came before the phase three studies were completed. Therefore, there is a need to answer some questions such as: how long is this immunity guaranteed and the adverse effects expected in a broader population.

What is known is, with an overall effectiveness of 50.38% of Coronavac and 70% of the Oxford immunizer, the eradication of the virus will not be immediate. In general, for every 100 people who receive Coronavac – the first vaccine available in the country – about 50 may still be infected with the virus. The good news is that those vaccinated, even if infected, should develop milder symptoms of the disease and with less chance of death, which is considered a step forward.

“Facing such an emergency, a vaccine like this, even in conditions that are not yet ideal, will meet an absolute need. We really need to start reducing the population’s susceptibility to SARS-COV-2 infection and the vaccine will help that. It will even serve to give us time while other vaccines also arrive, like the one from Oxford ”, explains Fonseca.

Still according to the researcher, the emergency use of Coronavac should relieve the health system, with the reduction of the most serious cases.

Brazilian Vaccine: a way of eradicating the virus

If for some of the researchers, the tests and the behavior of the virus are the focus, for another, the search for a Brazilian vaccine is the main objective. And in several national research centers, there is a real race against time to offer an immunizer that meets local specificities.

According to the president of the Brazilian Society of Virology, Flávio Guimarães da Fonseca, the creation of a local vaccine is urgent for the eradication of the disease in the country. One of the main reasons is to avoid dependence on other nations. In this first vaccination phase in Brazil, for example, there are 6 million doses available. As two applications are required in each person, there is only a guarantee of vaccinating 3 million Brazilians, a universe of approximately 1.5% of the total population.

Another issue raised by Fonseca is the existence of possible variants of the virus, such as those that have already appeared in Manaus and Rio de Janeiro. If there is a different behavior of the virus in the country, there will be a need for vaccines for immunization against these variants. He considers that, depending on other countries for this production, it can generate more time-consuming results.

But he warns that, when it comes to the national vaccine, Brazil is late. “Studies of a genuinely national vaccine are in the early stages. In the past ten years, Brazilian policies in relation to science have been cruel. There was a loss of resources, budget cuts, and disincentives for young researchers. And there is no point in injecting resources when the problem arises, it needs to be permanent because it is very difficult to change the tire while the car is moving”, says Fonseca. Due to this difficulty, while several countries have immunizers ready for application, in Brazil, studies are in the pre-clinical phase, in animal tests. According to the president, the most time-consuming part – human testing – has not even started here.

If an international vaccine is still far from society, sharing and transferring technology from experiences with the country’s research and production institutes gives good hopes for the future. It is the evaluation of the Professor of the Department of Biochemistry and Immunology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and coordinator of the tests for the Coronavac vaccine in the State, Mauro Teixeira. Even with reservations about the availability of research resources in the country, he sees good possibilities for an improvement in the country’s scenario.

“We have a vaccine industry that is state-owned and strongly based on the Butantã Foundation, Biomanguinhos and Funed institute, in Minas Gerais. Obviously, these institutions are concerned with diseases of greater interest to the population and less of the market. […] having the ability and technology to vaccinate will become a safety issue. We will be able to produce what we need and bring an activation and production technology that will eventually allow us to better deal with what will come in the future. We already have very competent personnel dealing with vaccines, but we need to expand this ”, says the professor.

 

Covid-19 | Panel about pandemic learning and trends. Fundep, in partnership with inovabra habitat, Bradesco’s innovation hub, promoted the event “Covid-19 Learning in Brazil: advances and trends for 2021”, on 1th February, which brings together specialists in health, technology and innovation, microbiology and biotechnology to share their experiences and perspectives on the pandemic scenario, the advances in science in that period and the next steps in this struggle.

The event live had the huge opportunity to invite important speakers at the brazilian scenario for the occasion:

Flávio Fonseca, professor at UFMG, researcher at CT Vacinas and president of the Brazilian Society of Virology; Rodrigo Oliveira, vice president of Research and Biological Collections at Fiocruz; Bruno Andrade, CEO of BiotechTown; Manoel Antônio Peres, physician and president of Bradesco Saúde e Mediservice; Vanessa Silva, president of Anbiotec Brasil; Felipe Massami Maruyama, Director of Government Innovation at IdeiaGov; and Sandra Vessoni, director of the Center for Scientific Development and dean of Graduate Studies at Instituto Butantan.

As a highlight of last year, Rodrigo Oliveira told about the importance of the Unified Health System (SUS) in combating the Covid-19 pandemic. “There is no equal health system in the world, with a vaccination system that can provide agility and efficiency, as in SUS. And this capacity is the result of a lot of construction and planning in the last decades”, he pointed out. Fiocruz representative also highlighted the work of universities and research institutes, which showed the ability to respond quickly to the crisis, either in the identification and genetic sequencing of new variants of the coronavirus or in the exchange of information with the health systems and the health sectors, technological development, impacting the creation and optimization of vaccines.