Malaysian-made Covid-19 vaccines to cover new variants

Big achievement: The two types of Covid-19 vaccines currently being developed by Malaysian experts are on track. – Photos: SAMUEL ONG/ The Star

 IT’S a big task, but the two types of Covid-19 vaccines currently being developed by Malaysian experts are on track.

As the coronavirus has been mutating, both vaccines will also take into account the Omicron variant of concern (VOC), which looms over the situation here.

“We will also look into any new VOCs that may arise in future in our vaccine development,” says Institute for Medical Research (IMR) director Dr Tahir Aris.

The first vaccine, which will be an inactivated vaccine, is expected to undergo pre-clinical trials involving animals in February.

“Such trials for the inactivated vaccine are expected to be completed within one year.

“This is before we can move onto clinical trials involving humans in the second half of 2023,” he tells Sunday Star.The proposed inactivated vaccine is an effort by the IMR, Universiti Putra Malaysia and the Veterinary Research Institute, which is under the Veterinary Services Department.

A second type of vaccine, using the mRNA (messenger RNA) method, is solely an IMR effort for now.

It will complete its proof of concept stage (evidence to show it is feasible) by the end of 2022, while animal trials will be conducted in 2023.

After that, the clinical trials involving humans for the mRNA vaccine are expected to be carried out in 2024.

“Both vaccines are currently being developed according to schedule,” says Dr Tahir.

The clinical trials for both vaccines will be conducted by the Institute of Clinical Research (ICR) at National Institute of Health (NIH) and Clinical Research Malaysia (CRM).

“These organisations will abide by standard protocols in conducting clinical trials which involve different phases,” he says.

As Covid-19 will be around for a while, Dr Tahir says the need for vaccination against the coronavirus is necessary.

“Whether the Covid-19 vaccine produced by IMR will be used as booster shots, it has yet to be determined by the policy makers based on scientific data.

“As to whether the vaccine is safe for children, it will be determined through clinical trials,” he adds.

Such clinical trials will also prove if the proposed vaccines are safe to be mixed, or given to recipients of shots from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinovac or other types of vaccines.

Read also: Malaysia’s shot at the Covid-19 vaccine

What we know after two years

So, what do we know for sure about Covid-19 after over two years it has been in our lives?

The IMR has confirmed some key facts, thanks to the research by its team of officers.

Its research among fully vaccinated health care workers shows that there is waning neutralising antibodies against the coronavirus after six months.

“Hence it is important to take a booster dose to increase the level of immune response.

“Whether there is a need for a fourth dose is dependent on the level of protective antibodies as well as infection rates among such frontliners after receiving their booster shots,” he says.

IMR’s researchers also found that many health care workers were infected with the Delta variant.

“This also supports the findings of the ongoing genome surveillance that IMR and other consortium members conduct, which show the dominance of the Delta variant in Malaysia since July 2021.

“However, this may change soon as current data from the surveillance shows a spike in cases of Omicron, especially among international travellers,” he adds.

The consortium is made up of the IMR and other bodies under the Health Ministry, Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry and Higher Education Ministry.

It conducts tests on all suspected VOC cases including whole genome sequencing.

Clinical trials will also prove if the proposed vaccines are safe to be mixed, or given to recipients of shots from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinovac or other types of vaccines.Clinical trials will also prove if the proposed vaccines are safe to be mixed, or given to recipients of shots from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinovac or other types of vaccines.

Stop the transmission

Due to how Covid-19 spreads, the public must continue to correctly wear face masks, as regularly reminded by the authorities.

Published data also shows that there is evidence of Covid-19 aerosol transmission (spread through tiny particles suspended in the air).

This is in addition to droplet transmission (spread through droplets containing the virus that comes in contact with another person’s eyes, nose or mouth).

“As such, everybody needs to ensure they wear suitable masks that fits their faces,” Dr Tahir advises.

Nevertheless, while the virus is easily transmissible, it is also easily inactivated or destroyed, especially on surfaces.

“Covid-19 is an enveloped RNA virus. Such viruses are easily inactivated by soap or other anti-septic material.

“Sanitisation is one way to kill the virus. That’s why people should wash their hands using soap. Sanitising surfaces will also help curb possible spread,” he reiterates.

There is no risk of transmission when swimming.

“Usually, the water in swimming pools is treated using simple disinfectant and that is also good enough to deactivate the virus,” Dr Tahir says.

In the outdoors, Covid-19 can’t survive long on surfaces outside due to many factors, including the fact that it needs host cells to survive.

“Covid-19 can be inactivated when exposed to sunlight (ultraviolet or UV light). The process of drying will also inactivate the virus.

“UV light is one method of environmental sanitisation. We use UV light to sanitize our lab at the end of the day,” he shares.

Good ventilation is also encouraged at home and public places like schools.

“Air-conditioning with fresh air circulation will also help to create better ventilation,” he says.

Different from the original

While we know more about Covid-19 now, the IMR says many things are still unconfirmed about Omicron.

The coronavirus has opportunities to undergo mutation, especially during the process of multiplication.

“This happens either in oneself or when transmission occurs in the community.

“Based on whole genome sequencing that is being carried out since Feb 2020, we see that there is so much diversity in the virus as a result of the mutations,” Dr Tahir says.

The current circulation of the coronavirus has diversified so much from the original Wuhan Ancestral variant, which started spreading in late Oct 2019.

The mutations have led to VOCs, namely Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron.

“VOCs have public health implications with higher transmissibility and severity, coupled with lower efficacy to vaccines or treatment regimens,” Dr Tahir explains.

IMR detected the first case of Omicron in Malaysia on Dec 2, 2021 by screening travellers entering through KLIA.

“Until now there are many things that we are unsure about this new variant.

“But based on World Health Organisation guidelines, there is increased transmission of the virus,” Dr Tahir says.

The higher mutations in the spike gene make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells in the respiratory tract.

This also causes the presence of a higher viral load in the nose, thus enhancing transmission to others due to respiratory droplets.

“We are not sure whether the Omicron variant increases the severity of the disease.

“Data from South Africa (where first cases of Omicron were reported) shows no significant increase in ICU admissions or deaths. However, this data is still preliminary and we need to evaluate data from other countries as well,” Dr Tahir adds.

Overall, the pandemic has taught valuable lessons.

“This includes the local ability to develop testing reagents, as well having local manufacturers of reagents and other things which we need like PPE and so on.

“It’s also very important to have the local capacity to develop vaccines as vaccination is key to stop any pandemic.

“With the local capacity to develop vaccines, then there is better acceptance of vaccines,” he says.

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