CAJICA, Colombia – A research team at the Autonomous University of Queretaro (UAQ), Mexico, is working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, joining about 100 other teams working toward a similar goal. Unlike other teams, however, this one is being led by veterinarians.
“The university has limited resources, and I spoke to the [dean], who told me that the university has a fund for serious technical situations,” Juan Mosqueda, lead researcher of the team at Autonomous University of Queretaro, told BioWorld.
“The pandemic allowed us to use this fund, which is small, but allowed us to start the molecular screening project with the population of Queretaro. We started and we´ve been able to move forward.”
Compared to other projects globally, Mosqueda’s team is working with minimal resources. The university’s emergency fund opened up funding of MXN$165,000 (US$6,873), just enough for the university to apply for public funds from Mexico’s federal government which, through the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt), could kick in up to MXN$5 million. Research teams elsewhere in the world are working with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
Conacyt issued a Call for Support for Scientific Research, Technological Development and Innovation in Health Projects to deal with COVID-19 while the National Council of Science and Technology has been searching for scientific research, technological development and innovation projects that contribute to the containment and mitigation of the pandemic.
“Likewise, the call seeks to optimize the country's resources on health issues and generate the necessary evidence for timely, accurate, effective and informed decision-making,” Conacyt said.
Results of the call will be published on May 11.
Mosqueda said his main concern is that if a vaccine is developed elsewhere in the world, it could take a long time before it becomes available in Mexico.
“The latest report that we received from the World Organisation for Animal Health [WOAH] warned of shortages associated with a pandemic, including vaccines and diagnostics kits. We started a project here in Queretaro to diagnose, but when we wanted to buy reactives, they were out of stock. And if that was the case with reactives, the same could happen with a vaccine,” said Mosqueda.
“The trend shows that if Germany, China or the U.S. produce the vaccine, first of all it will be for their people, and if there’s stock left, it will become available first for those who pay the most,” he said.
Mosqueda’s team has developed vaccines against ticks and includes three professors and four postgraduate students at the Faculty of Natural Sciences. The team is now working to decode the protein of the virus to fight against it.
“These viruses don't have a very complex invasion system to invade the cells,” Mosqueda said. “They only use a single protein, and yet not even all of it, but a small part of it, known as the domain. Through this domain, they join their receptor in the human cell, and in viruses like SARS-CoV-1 it is already shown that if the domain is blocked, the virus will not join the cell.
“After checking the type of protein of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2, I noticed that they are very similar, and the invasion mechanism is exactly the same and the receptor is exactly the same in humans,” he explained. “Our strategy is to use the domain of the protein S as a vaccine, to induce antibodies in humans, that would attach to the domain and would impede the domain from attaching to its receptor. It would be like blocking each virus, so that it can´t attach to the cells.”
The next immediate goal for Mosqueda’s team is to reach a point where the vaccine can be evaluated in a preclinical trial, according to the plan drafted for Conacyt.
“Our project is only conceived for six months, and during this time we can't progress too much, so we aim to have the vaccine ready for assessment in experimental systems in the lab, to be sure that it is innocuous and that it induces an immune response,” he said.
Mice labs will be used to test the vaccine at first.
Despite the global rush to get a vaccine to market, Mosqueda said it is important to move cautiously.
“There are people that want the vaccine to be available this year or the next one and that is going to be almost impossible. Anyone who sells that vaccine [in such a short term] will take a high risk of a vaccine not fully evaluated,” he said. “That is really delicate. Governments are skipping a lot of evaluation steps due to the desperation of the people, but people would need to be patient, and I feel that is not going to be easy.”