The most stunning fact about the pandemic is that Moderna's groundbreaking coronavirus vaccine was created in just two days in January. But in the year that it took to test and approve it, 250,000 Americans died from COVID-19.
Now, researchers at Swansea University are developing a smart vaccine device they believe could speed up the development process in the future — while making vaccines cheaper and easier to distribute.
Vaccine development is a notoriously slow process. It usually takes more than 10 years, so the fact that we already have multiple approved COVID-19 vaccines is actually incredibly impressive.
But if we could have cut down the development time even more — without compromising the safety or efficacy of the vaccine — many of those we've lost to COVID-19 would still be alive.
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Clinical trials are one of the most important parts of the development process. Until researchers test a vaccine candidate in people, they have no way of knowing for sure whether it'll prompt the right immune response or prevent an infection.
They're also the most time-consuming part, as researchers need to give trial participants time to actually encounter whatever disease their vaccine is designed to protect against.
Once enough people catch it, they can then compare the number of infected people in the placebo group with the number in the vaccine group, and determine just how effective the vaccine is.
The smart vaccine device under development at Swansea University is designed to give researchers a faster way to measure its impact.
Swansea's Smart Vaccine Device
Instead of delivering a vaccine the standard way — via an injection — the Swansea team proposes using a patch covered in tiny microneedles.
They aren't the first group to see the potential advantages of microneedle patches for COVID-19 vaccines — the method is painless, easy to administer, and requires a smaller dosage of a vaccine to provide immunity.
However, the smart vaccine device they're developing would take the microneedle patch one step further.
"This work could be expanded to apply to other infectious diseases."
Instead of just delivering a vaccine, it would also monitor the response to it by measuring biomarkers in their skin, indicating the production of antibodies.
The person would self-administer the patch, using tape to keep it in place for 24 hours. After that, researchers would collect the patches and scan them to collect data.
This data wouldn't necessarily eliminate the need for efficacy trials, but it would let researchers know right away if their vaccine is prompting a desired immune response in people.
"This measure of vaccination effectiveness will address an unmet clinical need and would provide an innovative approach to vaccine development," project lead Sanjiv Sharma said in a press release.
Beyond a COVID-19 Vaccine
The Swansea researchers have received more than $300,000 in funding from the Welsh government to develop their smart vaccine device, and they expect to have a prototype ready for clinical trials by the end of March.
The device could be commercially available within three years, according to a BBC News report, and even if it won't be needed to develop a COVID-19 vaccine by then, it could help with the development of improved coronavirus vaccines or immunizations for other diseases.
"Beyond the pandemic, the scope of this work could be expanded to apply to other infectious diseases as the nature of the platform allows for quick adaptation to different infectious diseases," Sharma said.
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