Challenges researchers face in developing a COVID vaccine: Denis Chopera

Aspen Global Innovators | July 14, 2020

Dr. Denis Chopera, a Senior Aspen New Voices Fellow, is a biomedical researcher and the Executive Manager for a TB/HIV research capacity development program (SANTHE) at Africa Health Research Institute.

We asked Dr. Chopera to describe the current challenges taking place in developing the COVID-19 vaccine. Find his responses below:

What are you working on and how does it relate to vaccine development for COVID-19?

I am a medical virologist and have been working on HIV research and vaccine development. Currently, I am working on research projects aimed at understanding the biology of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, through studying samples collected from infected individuals. The approach is to determine the ‘genetic sequences’ of the viruses isolated from infected individuals and figure out if the virus is mutating (changing) and if so, at what rate. We are also measuring how the body’s immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2 infection. The information generated from our research is important for vaccine development as the rate at which the virus mutates determines whether a vaccine will be effective or not (e.g., we have not been able to develop an effective vaccine against HIV largely due to the fact that it is a ‘moving target’ -it is changing all the time). By studying the immune responses in individuals who manage to control the infection without developing severe symptoms, we will have an idea of what constitutes an effective immune response and that is the what we will be looking for in a vaccine.

What unique challenges do researchers face working on a vaccine for COVID?

The biggest challenge at the moment is that we do not know what constitutes an effective immune response to SARS-CoV-2 as the majority of infected people do not seem to develop immune responses (we simply do not know enough about the virus).

What’s your hope for how the vaccine will reach people in a way that is equitable?

I feel that when we have an effective vaccine, manufacturers in developing countries should be licenced to produce the vaccines. It is clear that the developed countries are at the forefront of the vaccine development and will be the first to come up with an effective vaccine. However, this might mean that only a few pharmaceutical companies in the developed countries will be licenced to produce the vaccines which will make them expensive and probably inaccessible to low income countries. Having the vaccines manufactured in low income countries will make them more accessible and affordable to the countries.