Pirbright Tests New Coronavirus Vaccines on Pigs

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (pink) cultured in the lab. Credit: NIAID-RML ( NIAID-RML )

In the global battle to help control COVID-19, the Pirbright Institute will use pigs to assess the validity of potential vaccines in an effort to protect people against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the cause of the current pandemic.

Working in collaboration with researchers at the University of Oxford and Public Health England, Pirbright scientists will begin testing new vaccines for their ability to induce protective antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, according to a Pirbright release. The vaccines will include the chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector, which is soon to enter human phase I clinical trials and has been used to create vaccines for diseases like Ebola, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) and flu.   

According to the release, the vaccine candidates developed at Oxford will contain the spike protein from SARS-CoV-2, the protein against which protective antibodies are generated in infected patients.

Pirbright scientists will measure the level of antibodies produced after vaccinating pigs and will assess if the antibodies can block SARS-CoV-2 from infecting cells and preventing infection. The pig’s immune system shares many similarities to humans, leading researchers to believe a good response to a vaccine in pigs will help predict the success of vaccines for humans. Researchers will also test the safety of the new vaccines and monitor whether any adverse effects are observed in the pigs, the release said.  

This research could help inform the development of vaccines for humans. If successful, the next step involves human trials. However, a usable vaccine is still many months away, Pirbright said. 

“This work is a fantastic collaboration between world-leading medical and veterinary scientists in immunology, virology and molecular biology,” said Toby Tuthill, head of the Virus Programme at Pirbright. “It will provide an evaluation of new SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in a relevant model and will also generate a panel of antibody-based tools which will help us understand virus structure and how it stimulates the immune response. These antibodies could also be developed as additional novel therapeutics to treat COVID-19.” 

Pigs have been used as a large animal model in research on influenza viruses because pigs have a very similar respiratory system to humans, are naturally infected by influenza viruses and produce antibodies with similar characteristics as humans, the release said. 

Pirbright has a long history of research on livestock coronaviruses including porcine coronaviruses that affect pigs. Pirbright has not carried out research on human coronaviruses before but is now working closely with other science and health organizations to help control and prevent COVID-19 in order to protect human health.

These animal studies are funded by The Pirbright Institute from BBSRC UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Institute Strategic Programme Grants. The vaccine is being developed by a team led by Professor Sarah Gilbert at the University of Oxford, who have received £2.2 million to support them through pre-clinical and clinical trials to determine if the vaccine is safe and effective, as part of the £20 million rapid research response funded by UKRI, and by the Department of Health and Social Care through the National Institute for Health Research. 

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